Of the six dairy farms in the Dairylink programme, the Wallace farm at Seaforde in Co Down is by far the most exposed to soil moisture deficits it being a dry, exposed and free draining farm close to the sea in a low rainfall area.
It is fair to say that getting water away from land is the biggest challenge on the majority of the Dairylink farms and indeed the majority of farmers in the north and northwest.
Having said that, soil moisture deficits have been biting hard right across the province with grass growth rates on GrassCheck NI averaging just over 30kg/ha/day (see page 31).
However, widespread rain across the country earlier this week will help to reduce soil moisture deficits and should give a boost to grass growth rates.
How quickly the situation on farm changes will depend on the severity of the moisture deficit on the farm.
In Stephen Wallace’s case, the farm had turned a pale yellow, burnt-up colour so recovery will be slower than on farms that remained green. His average grass growth rate has dipped below 10kg/day.
Stephen’s initial action was to supplement the cows with extra meal in the parlour and through feeding round bale silage. That plan was then altered and he decided instead to increase the area available to cows.
This was achieved by bringing in 64 acres of ground that was intended for a fourth cut of silage. This reduced the demand for grass on the farm and was a lot less work than feeding out bale silage.
A portable water trough was used to provide fresh clean water to the milking cows when grazing the silage fields.
Despite introducing more area the grass deficits remain and Stephen is now back feeding 4kg of bale silage per cow per day again and meal feeding has increased by 1.5kg per cow per day.
On the face of it, the decision to graze the silage ground was the right one as we know from experience that there will be a big bounce in growth for a few months after a prolonged dry spell so Stephen reckons he will still be making silage on those 64 acres and maybe even more, albeit at a later stage.
Stephen has also taken advantage of the dry spell to do a bit of culling in the herd, with nine cows and four heifers culled in the last week because they were either not in-calf or didn’t fit the calving pattern.
Reducing the number of stock on the farm increases the amount of grass available to all the remaining animals. Stephen is considering culling 10 more cows but will wait and see what happens to grass growth rates first.
One possible advantage at the moment for Stephen is that his primarily autumn-calving herd is coming to the end of lactation and getting ready for dry-off, which will further reduce demand for grass as a dry cow eats less than a milking cow. So far, Stephen has 38 cows dried off.
He is using selective dry cow therapy and any cow with an SCC of less than 100,000 cells/ml is just being treated with a sealer only – no antibiotics. Dry cows and heifers will be vaccinated for rotavirus scour and treated for fluke in this week.
Because of the dry conditions, no fertiliser has been spread on the grazing ground for a number of weeks, but Stephen plans to resume spreading when conditions for growth improve.
Some dry cow silage was cut in the form of round bales last week. This is low in potash not having received any slurry and only yielded 2.5 round bales/acre.
The third-cut of silage was taken on 1 July and lifted the day after. This grass was sampled prior to cutting and the results were reasonably good with dry matter at over 17%.
Sugar, which is the key thing for silage preservation was a little more mixed, with one sample testing very high at 3.3% sugars while the other sample was a bit lower at 2.7% sugars. No additive was used in either instance. Fertiliser was spread on this ground after cutting.
A winter fodder audit has recently been carried out. It is estimated that there is around 1,760t silage produced from three cuts (clamp and bales). CAFRE adviser Judith McCord reckons that Stephen will need to ensile at least another 70–80t silage to ensure enough fodder for the winter, which he expects to get in a fourth cut.
Dung samples were taken for calves averaging nine months and when the results come back Stephen will decide on whether they need to be dosed again.