“Know your costs and keep your focus”

Charlie Morgan, Director of Grass­master Ltd, a grass­land consul­tancy in the UK, gives advice on how to opti­mise grass­land manage­ment.

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.