Following a brief recovery in May, farmers across the country are again feeling a real pinch in grass growth in the last fortnight. In some cases, growth has halved in a week and silage has again been included in milking herd diets. It will come as no surprise therefore that Ireland figures show year-to-date grass DM production running approximately 0.8t DM/ha behind the average year.

So far, 2024 has been a problematic grass growth year, with delayed grazing, slurry and nitrogen applications having an impact on grass production.

Figure 1 shows the weekly grass growth for this year and the last five years and their mean. The current grass growth is disappointing and is just ahead of grass demand.

Current grazing situation

Table 1 shows the current assessment of grass supply on farms within PastureBase Ireland. Average grass growth is 54 kg DM/ha, while grass demand is slightly lower at 52kg DM/ha. Soil moisture and lower than expected temperatures are the primary cause, although N supply to the sward may be a factor on some farms also. Grass supply is below normal of farms with a grass demand >3.5cows/ha on the grazing platform. While grass growth is likely to recover in the coming week, it is very important not to let farm cover slip too low in the mid-season period.

  • Maintain farm cover at >600kg DM/ha (>150kg DM cow).
  • Bring grass demand down with the farm grass growth – keeping an eye on ‘how regrowth is progressing'.
  • Ensure rotation length is between 21-24 days; don’t let pre-grazing yield drop below 1200kg DM/ha.
  • Options are to introduce more grazing area or introduce baled silage (3/4kg cows/day) in combination with concentrate. Increasing concentration supplementation alone will not increase rotation length.
  • If introducing silage, introduce good quality bales for as short a period as possible.
  • At this time of year, herd dry matter intakes should be 18-18.5kg DM/day. PBI data shows milk solids per cow to be behind target, even though meal feeding rates are high, therefore ensure pasture intake and quality are on target.
  • Paddocks with little or no clover require 20-25kg N/ha after grazing between slurry and chemical nitrogen.
  • N applications can be reduced for paddocks with a substantial clover content >15%.
  • Any surpluses grass should be harvested as soon as possible and the area returned to the grazing rotation.
  • Long-term impacts

    Longer term, the effects of reduced pasture growth rate will be lower silage stocks and higher feed costs.

    A reduction of 1.0 to 1.5 tonnes DM grown per hectare annually may not sound significant. However, when the full costs of balancing the deficit with purchased feed are added up, the scale of the effect becomes very clear.

    To illustrate in Table 2, we have taken an example dairy farm of 54 ha grazing platform plus an outside block of 20ha used for making silage and grazing heifers. For simplicity, we assumed a 10.5t DM annual growth on the outside block across each scenario.

    At 13.5 tonnes DM grown on the grazing platform, the whole farm is self-sufficient for silage, though the total surplus is small at less than 10 tonnes DM, no reserve. Purchased concentrate comes in at around 930kg or 5.5 cent per litre.

    If we step back to 12 tonnes DM grown, the picture changes significantly. In this scenario, the farm is no longer able to make enough silage inside the farm gate meaning about 70t DM silage (or 280-320 tonnes fresh weight) must be sourced on the open market. Meal feeding rates also increase by 130kg per cow or about 22 tonnes as fed annually. Total feed costs rise by 43% in this case to 7.9 cent per litre.

    Inevitably, a further drop in growth rate (back to 10.5 tonnes DM) has a similar but more severe effect. Here, the deficit in silage becomes 500 to 550 tonnes as fed. Filling this gap is a big management challenge for a herd of this size, and certainly leaves no room for delayed action. In terms of meal feeding, the annual cost rises to €92,500, which is about 90% higher than the 13.5t grown scenario.

    Remember, the extra meal in Scenario B and C is being fed to compensate for grass deficits and will not result in any additional milk yield (milk solids yield could be more likely to fall in fact due to extra silage in the diet). Therefore, it will add directly to feed costs.

    Comparing feed costs for Scenario A and C, there is a difference of five cents per litre - this is a massive increase in costs considering that stocking rate, cow type and annual milk solids yield is relatively constant. If meal costs per tonne were to increase, or if purchased silage were sourced at higher input costs (land rental, contractor charges, fertiliser etc.), then the gap would be greater still. Granted there will be a saving on the cost of ‘silage not made’ of about €3000-7000, but the net increase in cost of lower annual growth rates remains very significant.

    Over the last two to three years we are seeing this trend slowly emerge on some farms inflated feed costs for no increase in output. While high unit tonnage costs of meal and fertilizer have added to cost inflation, it is very likely that an underlying reason for ‘cost creep’ is reduced pasture growth and utilisation.

    Taking action to mitigate feed deficit risks

    Weather conditions in 2024 have certainly had a negative impact on grass growth and utilisation beyond farmers’ direct control; however, farmers will still have to deal with the reality of lower feed reserves for the second half of the year in advance of next winter. This is a big physical and financial challenge. As always, taking earlier action reduces risk and stress, and will probably reduce cost in the long run:

  • Complete a provisional feed budget immediately - your adviser will help. Have you less silage than this time last year? Did you have to buy feed this spring? If yes, take action now.
  • Similar to grazing area, ensure that silage areas have received adequate NPK nutrients. The response to N for second cut is usually good at around 15kg DM per 1kg N applied - apply up to 90kg total N per ha based on allowance. Top up with extra protected urea if needed.
  • Target late July for second cut on May - cut ground leaving a possible third cut as bales. Delaying first or second cuts by a couple of weeks will not solve a silage shortage problem, maximising total yield for the year should be the aim.
  • If the feed budget shows a significant feed shortage, then externally-sourced feed will most likely be needed. Explore all options to secure at least 80% of total fodder requirements as forage.
  • Dry cow feed will account for 50-60% silage needs on most dairy farms. Hay, haylage and straw are all reasonable options for transported feed. Make the necessary enquiries now.
  • Feeding straights to stretch forage stocks requires one-to-one restriction of silage. Is this feasible in your yard? Consider the extra work and management involved.
  • Explore ‘standing crop’ second cut options, or forage crops for grazing in-situ. Yield per ha will be the main determinant of cost. Account for 20% feed losses relative to standing yields in both cases.
  • Overall, it is usually a combination of feed options that will ‘fill the gap’. The best options are those that cost least on a tonne DM and UFL (energy) basis, but are also easy to manage in the yards next winter, and don’t need any further expense on machinery etc. Do your sums and get a second opinion if not sure.
  • A major concern this year will be the cash flow implications of having to source feed. It is vital to do a forward cash projection and allow for the possible cost of buying extra feed. As seen in the example in Table 1, this could stretch to as much a 5cpl extra cost. Make provision and put any necessary facilities in place in good time.
  • We also must consider the ‘demand side’ of the feed budget. Are there animals on the farm that are not meeting the cost of buying feed to keep them? It is never too early to offload non-productive stock e.g. those three or four chronic high SCC cows that always seem to avoid the cull.
  • Experience tells us that the last thing many farmers will do to solve a feed issue is offload stock. However, it can and should be seen as a temporary ‘tactical’ decision - there is nothing preventing a return to previous normal numbers next year when the feed issue is solved.
  • Finally, and importantly, it must be said that farmers have shown great resilience to weather issues over the last 18 months, in terms of having enough feed in the country to come through a very difficult period. It has however, taken its toll on morale and on family farm finances. While there is no need to be overly alarmist at this point in the year, and good opportunities to build feed stocks remain through summer, the year-to-date data does indicate a need for vigilance and forward planning.