A colder than normal April has slowed grass growth rates on Caroline Walsh’s farm at Ballinascarthy in west Cork.
Caroline won the Grassland Farmer of the Year competition for 2020. She hosted a virtual open day on Teagasc social media on Wednesday where she outlined her approach to grassland management at this key time of the year.
Grass growth rates on the Walsh farm averaged 36kg/day for the first two weeks of April this year, which is back almost 20kg/day compared to the same period last year.
Milking 69 cows on a 18.7ha milking block, the stocking rate is 3.69 cows/ha. Cows start calving in early January and the six-week calving rate is high at 91%, so the demand for grass is very high very early in the season.
The reason for such an early calving date is that there is more help around the farm in January and February – Caroline’s husband Joe and in-laws are agricultural contractors who tend to be busy working for farmers in March and April when other farmers are busy calving cows.
As a result, the herd are at peak milk production now, pumping out 2.32kgMS/cow, and demand for grass is high.
Faced with lower than expected growth rates two weeks ago, Caroline decided to apply the handbrake and introduced 1.5kg of silage to the diet and increased the meal to 5.5kg per cow. Average farm cover is currently 838kg/ha.
This is 227kg/cow so there is plenty of grass on the farm and silage has since been removed and meal is back to 3.8kg/cow/day.
“Because we’re in the middle of the breeding season I’ll probably leave the meal where it’s at for the moment. We started the breeding season on 12 April.
“All cows were tail painted three weeks before that with red tail paint. Everything that showed up in heat got green tail paint and as they’re AI’d they’ll get aquamarine tail paint,” Caroline says.
Out of the 69 cows, 12 cows that were not seen bulling by 12 April were scanned and two cows got a progesterone device. There are no stock bulls on the farm.
All AI is used and Caroline uses tail paint in conjunction with an automated heat detection system.
In 2020, the herd delivered 514kg MS/cow Caroline says her target this year is to produce 530kgMS/cow. Some maize is fed in early spring because she starts calving earlier. A total of 850kg/cow of meal was fed in 2020.
“The only way I’m going to increase production is to get the fat and protein per cent up. I’m very happy with the litres we produce.
“I generally try not to go above 100kg in milk [in the bulls picked] because I have enough milk. I do use some high-milk sexed semen bulls on the few Jersey crosses in order to bring milk back into them.
“When I pick bulls I pick all pedigree. I find that you’re definitely going to have good udders, feet and legs. My decision is heavily weighted on composition.
“I want plus 0.1% in protein and plus 0.15% or 0.2% in fat. Our six-week calving rate was 88% last year and 91% this year.
“That wouldn’t mean we’re absolutely excellent and have wonderful fertility, it means that we sell off the late calvers – if we held on to everything we would still have the April calvers.
“I also look closely at milking speed and temperament. I don’t want to have or to be selling slow milkers,” Caroline says.
Five years ago, the farm was growing around 9tDM/ha on average. That increased to over 16t/ha in 2019 and dipped to just under 14t/ha in 2020 due to a drought in June.
Grass was measured 45 times last year and the average number of grazings was 9.3 across the farm.
There are 20 paddocks on the farm. About 60% of the land is across a minor road and a new underpass was constructed to make it easier to access this block when the Walsh family started back milking cows in Ballinascarthy in 2015.
Caroline walks the farm every five days during the summer. The first thing she does after a grass walk is check the demand is correct – that cow numbers, grass allocation and meal being fed are right.
“If I can see that grass is getting tight, I can make a decision about putting in extra feed or silage. This has happened before as last May we took out 10 acres for reseeding and pinched ourselves for grass.
“I could see from the wedge that we were going to be short so I fed some silage for 10 days, it didn’t upset the cows and we got out of it OK.
“If I wasn’t grass measuring I probably wouldn’t have gone in with silage early enough and would have probably driven average farm cover down too low and gone into a tailspin.
“If I do a grass walk on a Monday I know for the whole week where the cows will be and everyone knows where the cows are and how many feeds are in each paddock.”
Her ideal pre-grazing yield is 1,400kg/ha as quality and clean-outs are good. When covers go to 1,600kg or 1,700kg/ha Caroline says she looks at the wedge to see if she can afford to skip the paddocks over and take them out for bales.
“We have a good few paddocks with Abergain and I find if I go into these at covers of 1,700 to 1,800kg/ha the cows don’t find the grass as palatable so 1,400kg/ha is the nice round figure I aim for.”
Caroline has the field for reseeding this year picked out already. It grew an average of 11.5tDM/ha last year. It was grazed this year on 24 February and is still not grazed in the second rotation yet.
Caroline says the plan will be to spray it off with glyphosate, disc, sow, roll and spread two bags of 18:6:12 per acre plus granular lime.
“We soil sample the farm every year and spread lime on any field that needs it. The granular lime that we spread at reseeding is only spread to prevent surface acidity at reseeding,” she says.
A grass seed mix containing Aston Energy, Aberchoice and Abergain along with 1kg of white clover has been chosen as the seed mix for 2021.
Pre-grazing yield is usually around 1,400kg/ha for the summer, but Caroline says she will be looking to graze the reseeded field at a cover of around 1,100kg/ha 12 to 14 days after each grazing depending on growth rates. She also plans to over-sow a paddock with clover this summer.
In terms of sustainability, Caroline aims to reduce chemical fertiliser usage by about 20% by using more slurry spread by a trailing shoe applicator and clover.
Chemical nitrogen use on the milking platform last year was 262kgN/ha and the aim is to spread 250kgN/ha this year.
Caroline milked more cows on the farm previously, peaking at 80 cows in 2016, but has cut back to 65 to 70 cows which she says is less work, more profitable and requires less bought-in feed.
The herd has an exceptionally high EBI at €181 and stock sales are a part of the business. Fifteen heifer calves are contract-reared and the rest are sold.
There were 42 heifer calves born this year so only the best calves are kept, which Caroline says should help to speed up genetic gain. Late-calving cows are sold in August which reduces the stocking rate and frees up more grass for the rest of the cows.