Where farmers hope to filter cattle out to grass during March and April, planning ahead will help keep grass in front of livestock and prevent swards from being poached.

Given the outlook for fertiliser supply and price, make 2022 the year to reconsider how grass is managed on farm.

It is also the year to start rotationally grazing cattle.

It will take more work compared with set stocking, but grass growth will be significantly higher.

Where turnout is likely over the next four to six weeks, outlined are some steps to setting the farm up and make best use of fertiliser.

1 Walk the farm and make a fertiliser plan

Many farms have accumulated a lot of grass over winter. These covers will need grazing off before slurry and nitrogen go out.

Grazing heavy covers first removes any white material at the sward base, thereby stimulating regrowth. Targeting fertiliser to an actively growing sward will give a higher growth response.

Slurry has never been more valuable, so make the most of it. Target as much silage ground as possible with 2,500 to 3,000 gal/acre spread on low to medium covers.

On grazing paddocks at index 0 or 1 for phosphate (P) and potash (K), spreading 1,500 to 2,000 gal/ac has merit where covers are low, or after a heavy cover has been grazed.

These swards are unlikely to be grazed again for at least three to four weeks, giving enough time for slurry to be washed in and improving grass utilisation.

This time period will also reduce the risk of cows developing tetany. However, cows should still be supplemented with magnesium as a safeguard.

By mid-April, grass growth should be on the rise. Chemical nitrogen will be better off applied at this stage, as the economic return will be higher compared to a March application.

2 Little and often fertiliser applications

Grass growth can fluctuate significantly in March and early April. So when spreading fertiliser, look for a dry weather window when temperatures are rising and there is no overnight frost.

Spreading 20 to 25 units/ac to productive swards every four to five weeks will improve nitrogen uptake, thereby reducing atmospheric losses compared with higher application rates or through leaching.

Fertiliser rates can be reduced or application intervals increased from June on if grass growth rates allow, encouraging clover to supply nitrogen.

3 Grass budgeting

Early turnout is about slowly slipping small groups out to grass, not turning every animal out around the same time. When walking the farm, assess the average height of the sward in each field. Use a platemeter to be accurate, or mark a few height readings on your welly boot.

Swards should be grazed down to a base of 4cm, or 1,600kg DM/ha. As a simple rule, every 1cm increase above the base is around 200kg DM/ha of grazable spring grass.

For a 5ac (2ha) field with an average sward height of 8cm, there is approximately 800kg DM/ha of grazable grass, or 1,600kg DM in the field.

Cattle will eat around 2.5% of their bodyweight in dry matter, so 10 heifers weighing 400kg will eat around 100kg DM/day.

The outlined field should last the group around 16 days, provided grazing and weather conditions are good. If soils are marginal and grass is wet, then this grazing period will obviously be reduced.

4 Prioritising cattle for turn out

Go through cattle and prioritise certain groups for turnout. First call should be given to maiden heifers that will be mated at 15 to 16 months of age. Autumn calves or yearling stores that will be sold later in the year are also worth giving priority to. In terms of cows, give priority to freshly-calved heifers over mature cows.

Ideally, meal would be cut from the diet around three to four weeks before turnout. But no-one can tell what weather and ground conditions will be like so far ahead.

Therefore, halving the meal allowance and feeding up until turnout is a more practical compromise.

5 Turning cattle out hungry

When conditions are suitable for turnout, restrict silage intakes the evening before, so that cattle go out to grass in a fasted state. Hungry animals are more likely to begin grazing when they hit grass.

6 Tidy up horns and other management tasks

Tidy up any horns that have grown back prior to turnout or male cattle that missed out on castration.

This is important if cattle are likely to be sold live later in spring or summer to relieve stocking pressure and generate cash flow, as sale value will be maximised.

After the winter housing period, check all cattle have two ear tags in place. Fit any replacement tags before turnout.

7 Herd health

Make sure that herd health is up-to-date with regard to vaccines for calves, stores and breeding stock. It may also be a good opportunity to administer a mineral bolus to animals.

8 Rotational grazing

Rotational grazing will grow more grass, as swards are rested for two to three weeks between each rotation, allowing regrowth to accumulate.

In set-stocking systems, cattle will actively seek out fresh regrowth, making it harder for grass covers to build.

With rotational grazing, the rest interval gives a far clearer indication of which swards are responding to fertiliser and which paddocks are not, making nitrogen more cost effective.

It is also easier to decide when fertiliser is needed and when a paddock can be skipped. Ideally, a grazing rotation of 20 to 21 days should be maintained through April and early May.

9 Setting up paddocks

For a farmer that is new to rotational grazing, it takes time to gain confidence in what you are doing. So, start with one or two areas of the farm, around 15 to 25ac in size.

Aim to have six or seven grazing divisions and bigger paddocks are better to begin with. Once you get more confident, use temporary wires to reduce grazing areas and make more divisions.

Water provision will be an issue. But with a bit of thought, it can be worked around before extra drinkers are needed.

10 Electric fencing

At turnout, it can take a day or two for animals to settle. Where electric fencing is used to control grass, a mains fencer unit is the best option.

Where battery fencers are used, opt for a 12v unit and use nine-strand wire to carry the charge efficiently.

If cattle are not used to electric wires, it may be worth letting animals settle in the field first, then set up the wires. Otherwise, there is a higher risk of cattle breaking wires as soon as they hit grass.

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