The next phase of a pioneering study into grass growth rates in Northern Ireland will look at ways farmers can improve grass utilisation.

AgriSearch's GrassCheck programme has run since 1999 with its weekly growth rate forecasts popular with many farmers across the region.

Grass potential

The research has the aim of providing a detailed understanding of grass growth potential in Northern Ireland to allow farmers to make informed management decisions.

The programme's findings have been partly responsible for driving better grass yields. Dairy farmers on the programme had growth of 12.6t of DM/ha compared to the industry average of 7.5t of DM/ha.

GrassCheck currently includes 30 sheep, beef and dairy farmers running a range of systems spread across Northern Ireland as well as grass plots at two research sites based at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute's Hillsborough site and Greenmount College.

This year, for the first time, the programme will include 40 farmers.

As part of the programme farmers measure grass growth across their grazing platform once a week.

The measurements are taken using electronic plate metres calibrated at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.

'Good yields in a difficult year'

GrassCheck researcher Dr. Debbie McConnell said: "Where we are at the moment we have a really good picture of grass growth across Northern Ireland.

"We can show that even in a difficult year we got really good quality and yields from the farms - that's really outstanding.

"Going forward we are going to be looking in more detail at grass utilistion on these farms and their supplimentary feed levels really because that is the key part of running a profitable business.

You can grow as much grass as you like, but we know every extra tonne of grass used is worth £304 to a dairy farm so improving that is important.

"This year we are focusing on collecting data on utilisation as well. This is a really good group here - this past year we have seen really good data coming through.

"The attention to detail that these guys place on their management - managing swards and getting in at the right pre and post grazing covers - is already making a difference, with the weekly grass quality analysis also helping them to make management decisions.

"That all helps boost grass utilisation on farm and increase the amount of milk produced."