Grazing deficits are being reported on many dairy farms in Northern Ireland, as persistent cold temperatures and low rainfall challenge growing conditions. 

GrassCheck shows that grass growth rate is well below the previous 10-year average and, as expected, this is having a major impact on grazing.

With lower than average rainfall recorded in the past month and little expected for the incoming week, a soil moisture deficit may also be having an impact on grass growth in the eastern counties.

Michael Verner, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) dairying adviser based in Newry, said:

“It is important to be proactive; walk the grazing platform weekly to check what grass is available for grazing and to assess regrowths.

“A grass budgeting tool can help with calculating both your herd’s grass demand and grass availability and to identify any shortfalls. Average farm cover should not be allowed to fall below 2,10KG/DM/ha.”

Grazing area

“Farmers could consider increasing the size of the grazing area by bringing some silage ground into the rotation," Verner continued.

“If poor growth persists, they might be forced to feed silage shortly after conserving it, so it makes sense to graze some now and cut the rest. However, be careful not to graze too much of your potential winter fodder supply.”

Milk producers are being encouraged to target the best forage to the most productive animals on the farm.

By taking this approach, milking cows should continue to have access to grass while young stock could be held in the house for longer and continue to be fed last year’s silage. 

Another step that can be taken is to remove dry cows from the grazing platform and to feed them silage.

Grazing higher covers

With ground conditions favourable, farmers should also consider grazing higher covers or heavier parts of the farm.

Pre-cutting can help with utilisation of heavier covers and encourage dry matter intake (DMI).

Michael Verner advises that concentrate supplementation rates should be adjusted to take account of your forage situation. M+ rates in computerised milking parlours should be reduced, based on grass supply and forage supplementation.

Producers should continue to monitor milk yields and quality, DMI and oestrus behaviour so as to ensure the diet on offer is meeting the energy demands of the cows.

If grass silage is available, feeding 6-8kg, DMI equivalent of silage will halve the herd’s grass demand.

Avoiding prolonged periods in one field will also ensure faster regrowth, so where possible, cows should be grazed in 12-hour grazing blocks and fence off regrowths with a back fence as soon as possible.

Limited grass or silage

If grass is limited and silage on-farm is not available, then Verner highlights that other options can be considered for filling the DMI shortfall.

These include the purchase of grass/maize/whole-crop silage or dry feeds such as soya hulls or sugar beet pulp, purchased on a value-for-money basis.

“In the short term, milk producers may have to spend money on feed but the payback in performance may be worth many times that amount later in the year, if it enables cows to reach peak yield, achieve good fertility performance and maintain body condition

CAFRE is advising that milk price is expected to be higher than last year through the springtime, ensuring that it should be profitable to feed additional 'bought-in' DM and maintain milk yield if necessary.

Other more radical decisions may have to be made if slow growth persists but for now, it is important to take action to meet any potential feed gap on the farm.