The lack of grass growth is causing major problems for suckler farmers around the country.
Grazing rotations are under pressure and swards are light on silage ground, with grass turning brown as cold, northerly winds burns plant leaves.
While the situation will undoubtedly change for the better, this will provide little comfort to farmers running out of grass.
Outlined are some of the more common questions farmers have been asking around grazing and silage-making, with some general advice offered.
1. What are my options to reduce grazing demand?
The first step to walk the farm at least once weekly, but ideally twice per week, to monitor changes in grass supply.
To reduce livestock demand, there are various options available, although they will not be practical on every farm.
Offering silage, or hay, will ease grazing demand. But placing ring feeders and bringing bales to the field every other day can damage heavier swards.
If possible, set up feeders on a hardcore area to limit ground damage. Alternatively, place feeders on a headland area that can be easily repaired, or else, sacrifice a field marked for reseeding.
Offering concentrates will also reduce grazing demand but is expensive. To make feeding more practical, meal can be offered on top of grass, provided there is no ground damage that could lead to exposed soil being ingested.
Next, is there an option to sell stores, late-calving cows, or suckler outfits where the cow was due to be culled this autumn?
Can autumn-calving cows be dried off and stocked at a higher density, freeing up grass for weanlings?
Make sure autumn cows stay on low covers. Keep dry cows away from wooded areas, or dormant water, as higher fly activity can lead to summer mastitis.
2. Should I rehouse cows to let covers build?
If the outlined options to ease grazing demand are a non-runner, this leaves farmers possibly looking at rehousing cattle for a short period to let sward covers build.
However, you need to be very selective about which cattle to put back in the shed. The breeding period for spring-calving herds will either be getting under way, or about to start.
Housing for a short period, then turning cows back to grass, will negatively affect cow fertility due to the change in diet and environment.
So if you need to rehouse, opt for stores first, then autumn-calving cows. Spring-calving cows on the point of breeding should be last to rehouse.
There is also the issue of spring-born calves developing pneumonia from the change in environment, increased stocking density indoors and the lack of airflow in sheds.
3. Should I graze silage swards?
An alternative to rehousing cattle, or the other methods of reducing demand, is to graze fields closed off for silage.
Many farmers will be reluctant to go down this route, fearing they will be short of winter fodder. But silage stocks can always be replenished later in the season.
If you decide to graze silage fields, the key is to set up an electric wire and strip graze. This way, you are preventing cattle from trampling and spoiling the full sward.
If grass growth picks up in the 10 to 14 days, you can close off the ungrazed part of the sward, and harvest it as planned with the rest of the first cut.
However, if you decide to graze silage fields, choose swards that were fertilised in early April. This reduces the risk of cattle suffering from nitrate poisoning.
It also reduces the risk of tetany in spring-calving cows, as it is likely that high levels of slurry or potash (K) were applied when closing off silage swards.
If grass growth picks up in the next 10 to 14 days, you can close off the ungrazed part of the sward, then harvest as planned with the rest of the first cut.
4. Silage swards are looking poor. Should I apply more fertiliser?
Where swards are looking light in terms of yield, many farmers are asking is it worth sowing more fertiliser.
Where the sward was closed in early April with the intention of cutting towards the end of May, or first week of June, the fertiliser applied is most likely utilised by this stage.
However, you should refrain from sowing more nitrogen on these swards, as it increases the risk of higher nitrate residual levels in silage.
This will cause poor fermentation, high pH and ammonia and, ultimately, poor-quality silage that is prone to heating.
The best option is to go ahead and cut these swards around the target harvesting date. As the sward base will be green after harvesting, regrowth will be quick to emerge.
Graze the headlands for three to four days, apply slurry and around 70 units/acre of nitrogen, then close off fields for a good second cut to make up the deficit in the first cut.
Consider boosting fodder supplies by baling surplus grass on the grazing ground this summer.
If you have spread more nitrogen in the past fortnight, and intend cutting silage at the end of May, it is crucial this grass gets at least 24 hours to wilt after cutting.
Once grass is mowed, spread the sward out immediately to get a rapid wilt to increase dry matter. The higher dry matter will help to offset the potential problems with residual nitrogen.
If swards were closed in late April to early May, with a target cutting date in mid to late June, the nitrogen applied will still be available in the ground.
Therefore, there is no advantage to spreading more fertiliser now. Once heat does come, these swards will bulk out.
5. Should I keep spreading fertiliser when growth is slow?
Grass growth is influenced by air and soil temperatures and when it is cold, many farmers will hold off on spreading fertiliser to avoid the loss of nitrogen.
But it is important to keep dressing grazed swards with 20 to 25 units/acre of nitrogen every three to four weeks.
With short rotations of 10 to 14 days due to a lack of grass, there is an increased risk of nitrate poisoning and tetany if using a high-potash (K) fertiliser.
So leave at least two weeks between spreading fertiliser and grazing to reduce these risks.