It’s weather like what we have experienced over the last seven days, that puts a lot of beef farmers off turning cattle out early. ‘I’m only putting them out if they can stay out’ is the common mind-set. If everyone were to follow this theory, there wouldn’t be a beef animal outside until the first week in April each year.
Fair enough, some springs simply don’t offer the opportunity to get to grass early. However, I don’t think there can be many excuses for not getting some grazing in since the beginning of February this year. After all, for those that worked so hard to follow an autumn grazing planner and build up decent grass covers in the back-end, isn’t it all in vain unless you are willing to try and get it grazed early?
Despite having to re-house at the weekend, one farmer that certainly doesn’t regret an early turn-out is Brian Doran, Co Wicklow’s representative in the Teagasc/Irish Farmers Journal BETTER farm beef challenge. Brian is operating a steer- and heifer-beef system on 44ha just outside the village of Carnew. Since the beginning of the programme, he has slightly increased his suckler cow numbers to 47 calving this spring.
An example of the clean-outs achieved.
However, having placed such a strong emphasis on grassland management in the first two years of the programme, Brian is eager to maximise the benefits of this. With 45 of his own 2018-born steers and heifers for grazing in 2019, he also has an additional 39 one-year-old cattle on the farm at present. A combination of calves that were reared in 2018 and weanlings that were purchased at the end of the year.
Forty-seven cows and calves, plus 84 one- to two- year olds will give Brain a stocking rate of 2.5LU/ha across the entire farm, or 3.4LU/ha when silage ground is excluded.
Almost three weeks ago, Brian started to let out the first of his cows and new-born calves. Soon after that, all 84 stores were let out. Up until last weekend, Brian had a total 15 cows and calves and 84 stores at grass. It was text-book spring grazing with clean-outs of 4-5cm, little-to-no ground damage, 25 units of urea spread on the whole farm and absolutely no supplementary feed going out, except hi-mag licks to cows. Between 25-30% (six paddocks) of the grazing platform were grazed.
Doing the daily stock-check on Sunday morning left Brian pondering over the need to bring stock back in, or not. It wasn’t so much the rain that had fallen, but more so the rain and cold that was on the way.
“I brought in the 84 stores and six of the cows and calves in less than an hour on Sunday morning”, Brain said. “There hadn’t been any damage done at that point, but with the rain and the cold on the way, I thought it was best to take them off in case they did do harm.” Nine cows and calves remained out.
Brian openly admits he doesn’t regret turning them out, and nor should he. There are three main reasons for early turn-out on any farm; lower feeding costs, improved grass quality in the second and third rotations, and increased quantities of grass grown on the farm annually. For Brian, all three of these were achieved.
“The 84 weanlings were eating 1.5t of silage each day. With those, along with 15 cows out of the yard, I’ve probably saved between 25-30t straight away,” he said.
Furthermore, having walked the farm on Monday with Brian, BETTER farm adviser Tommy Cox and local B&T adviser Eoin Woulfe, the most impressive part was certainly the clean-outs in each paddock. Well below 5cm was being achieved.
These have since received slurry and, as a result, look certain to push out a very high-quality sward in the next rotation. For Brian, the most intriguing aspect of the early turnout has been the extent of the re-growths in the grazed paddocks.
A lot of farmers across the country have been doubting the higher-than-normal growth rates displayed on PastureBase over the last month. In many cases, it is much lower than what is being reported but this is only on ground that hasn’t been grazed.
Growth is very minimal as the plant is dormant after the winter. Grazing grass has the effect of stimulating growth in the plant and therefore, it is in the grazed paddocks that excellent growth rates are being achieved. Think of how your lawn reacts when you cut it for the first time - once you start, it will keep growing.
An eye on the weather
While most grazing is at a standstill for now due to the weather, it is important to be ready to get to grass when conditions do allow.
“As soon as the weather lets me, I’ll be putting everything back out again,” Brian highlighted.
“I’ll be able to get them out in less than an hour and the good thing is they know what they are at so they will settle quickly.”
He added: “To be fair to the programme and to my advisers they have always pushed me to work on grassland management and getting cattle out early. I’d definitely say I’ve shortened my winter by two or three months because of it.”