Ireland are very inefficient grassland managers

Without doubt, Ireland has many of the best dairy farmers in the world and that most dairy farmers have made huge progress in the past few decades, particularly regarding grassland management and breeding.

However on average, based on dairy farming statistics, Irish dairy farmers are very inefficient grassland managers. These statistics indicate that the average concentrate feeding per dairy cow is about 850 kg, average stocking rate per hectare on milking platforms is only 1.8 cows per hectare and that the average Irish dairy farmer utilises only 7.5 tonnes of grass DM per hectare.

It seems reasonable that in a very short period of time it should be possible to increase utilisation to 10 tonnes grass DM per hectare and this would allow a reduction of almost half a tonne of concentrates per cow without loss of milk production at present stocking rates and milk yields. Based on the fact that grazed grass costs about 6 cent/kg DM, silage 15cent/kg DM and concentrates almost 30cent/kg DM, it is obvious that there are major saving to be got by increasing grass production and utilisation.

A recent Teagasc survey of 17 typical farms on reasonably free draining soil indicate that there is a huge difference in production between farms. The top farms produced 14.4 tonnes grass dry matter per hectare while the lowest produced only 8.9 tonnes. This is a difference of 5.2 tonnes dry matter per hectare worth €250 per tonne.

Financially this is a difference of around €1250 per hectare or €500 per acre. This amount of feed would feed an extra cow per hectare.

Evidence at farm level indicate that there is a similar difference between paddocks on the same farm. In Moorepark Curtin’s farm where all paddocks look very good, some paddocks, before reseeding, produce almost 50% more than others.

Researchers indicate that the main reason for the difference in production is due to the variation in the proportion of ryegrass in the swards. Of course proper fertilization and management as well as soil type also has significant affect. Surveys have indicated the usage of lime has been reduced from 1.7 million tonnes in the early eighties to 700,000 tonnes in 2009. Due to the cut back in lime, the average pH of Irish soils is estimated to be only 5.5 while about 6.3 is required for optimum performance of grassland and efficient use of fertilisers. There is also a cut back of about 40% in P and K fertiliser use since 2003 and an increasing percentage of soil samples showing deficiencies. This data indicate a major reason for such poor production in much of our grassland.

Teagasc National Survey

A Teagasc national survey show that 50% of farmers do some reseeding every year while 25% never reseed.

Seventy five percent of reseeding is carried out autumn. The researchers say that spring reseeding is far more preferable but personally I prefer early autumn as it better facilitates pre spraying to kill docks and weed grasses which are generally the main reasons for reseeding.

The survey also shows that most farmers still use ploughing rather than minimum cultivation (30%).

Only 50% of farmers soil test before reseeding or use post emergence spray to control seedling docks and other weeds which of course limits the advantage of reseeding. It is strongly recommended to reseed at least 10% of your farm every year while the actual figure is less than 7%.

Economic and weather circumstances may reduce the level of reseeding for a few years and in order to make up the back log some farmers should aim at reseeding 15% of their farms. Unfortunately while some farmers cannot afford to reseed, neither can they afford not to reseed.

* This is a good time of year to check on areas of your grassland that are not producing satisfactorily. You will notice that some paddocks are producing almost twice as much grass as others. This may be due to some pastures having been damaged or fertiliser/lime deficiency or more likely due to a low level of perennial ryegrass. If a low level of perennial is the problem, there is little option but to reseed as soon as conditions allow if good production is required.

* Ryegrass pastures that have been partly damaged can be significantly improved by top seeding with some clover seed or a mixture of clover and ryegrass seed. These pastures should be kept tightly grazed to give the new seeds a chance to develop.

* Farmers with a relatively low stocking rate should consider top seeding with about 3lb clover seed per acre as this is an ideal method of laying down good clover pastures if the existing pastures are clean with a reasonable level of ryegrass.

* The Teagasc Solohead system for laying down highly productive clover pastures involved top seeding after first cut silage but due to likely weather conditions, spring seeding into open ryegrass pastures should be better. As with all reseeding there must be good seed to soil contact.


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