Perfect grassland management will vary according to environmental conditions. Although one system won’t fit all, what are the broad themes which apply?
Charlie Morgan: For optimum grass growth, it’s essential the soil contains sufficient nutrients: At least 16-25mg/litre of phosphate on the Olsen scale, and 120-180mg/litre of potash. Soil pH should be 6-6.5, and once these building blocks are in place, growers can consider micronutrients for greater efficiencies. Nitrogen should be applied after each grazing or silage cut. Good soil structure and organic matter content are also vital, enabling roots to grow, improving the water holding capacity of the soil, and preventing erosion. Although all soil disturbance releases nutrients, shallow ploughing is still the best form of establishment, as it gets rid of competitive weeds. If min-tilling, other vegetation must be sprayed off first, and the future of glyphosate is uncertain.
Species choice helps to maximise grass yields and quality throughout the year. What are the best options in different regions?
In wetter regions ryegrass is king, whereas Timothy, dwarf cocksfoot and fescues are suited to drier areas. Some new hybrids are better rooting, drought tolerant, and winter hardy, making them more suitable for a changing climate, while legumes and deeper rooting herbs are increasingly important. Silage leys should be resown every five years, with grazing pasture lasting 10+ years, depending on variety choice. If carefully managed, grassland can last 20-30 years; then the only argument for reseeding is to introduce newer grass genetics.
What about grassland management?
The key to good grassland management is to understand how the plant grows; cutting it at the optimum stage and leaving it with sufficient leaf to regrow rapidly. Rotational grazing or cutting can boost grass yields by 20-50%. Using a rising plate meter to measure grass growth, UK farmers should turn out cows at 2000-2200kg DM/ha, grazing down to 1500-1700kg DM/ha. Any pasture that exceeds 2700kg/ha may be shut up for silage, and producers should map grass growth around the farm to design the rotation, cut surplus grass, or introduce buffer feed.
Cows should be allocated the exact acreage to supply their demand, and moved to fresh pasture every 12-24 hours.
Cows should be allocated the exact acreage to supply their demand, and moved to fresh pasture every 12-24 hours – so flexible fencing, water troughs and access roads are essential. In hotter, drier climates, the principle of rotation still stands, although it will be spread over a longer timescale with greater yields due to slower grass growth. Whatever your system, the key is to know your own costs and focus on what you do best. In dairy farming, attention to detail and making little improvements can be the difference between profit and loss.