Top-quality grassland management is a must on dairy-calf-to-beef farms. Grazing these animals is very different to grazing suckler cows. They are unforgiving if grass is not kept correct in front of them at all times.
From looking at the performance of the programme farmers, it is clear to see that the biggest difference between those excelling at grassland management and those that can do better, is that the best performers are consistently measuring grass. We keep alluding to the fine margins that these systems operate on. Gaining an extra 0.1kg/day of liveweight at grass may not seem like much, but over a grazing season this could mean an additional 20kg of liveweight, or at current beef prices an additional €42 of carcase output.
Grass measuring is the key tool for the successful dairy-calf-to-beef farmer. It allows you to make better grazing decisions sooner in order to minimise disruption to the grass supply or quality to the grazing animal.
Of course, measuring grass is only a benefit if you can manage grass supply with a good network of paddocks. On the demonstration farm, there are over 40 permanent divisions across the farm with the ability to split each of these in two when required through the main growing season.
The farm grew over 13t/ha on average in 2020, nearly double that of the average drystock farm in the country. This shows the level of management required to support a high level of liveweight gain throughout the grazing season. It also highlights the huge potential there is on many farms across the country to increase the amount of grass grown and utilised on drystock farms.
Calves need to graze lower covers than yearling cattle. Target a pre-grazing yield of around 1,200kgDM/ha to 1,300kgDM/ha. This is equivalent to 8-9cm of grass.
Consistently hitting these pre-grazing yields in 2020 on the demo farm increased daily liveweight gain in the calves and saw calves housed over 25kg heavier compared to the previous season.
Calves do best when they are offered fresh grass every couple of days. While moving daily may require too much of a labour input, moving at least three times a week should be the aim. It is best to increase the grazing pressure with calves so that they do not spend too long in any one paddock. This can be done in two ways. Either increase the number of calves in the grazing group to increase the demand, or reduce the paddock size so that the area being grazed is smaller and will only last 36 to 48 hours.
For the yearling cattle, a target pre-grazing yield of between 1,400kgDM/ha and 1,600kgDM/ha is advisable.
Again, early in the season, grass demand is quite low and splitting paddocks with a single strand of electric wire makes sense to help reduce the amount of time cattle spend in any one allocation. As cattle grow throughout May and June, intake of these animals increases considerably. At this stage, larger paddocks can be allocated to stock. The aim for these cattle should also to be moving at least three times a week to fresh pasture.
Forcing cattle to graze out heavier covers is not recommended for two reasons. Firstly, performance is going to take a hit for a few days if you are forcing stock to clean out paddocks. Secondly, it takes a lot of time to graze these heavier covers which means grass in the rest of the rotation is going ahead of stock and the problem continues. The best approach is to skip the paddock and cut it as surplus silage.
Baled silage plays a key role in managing grazing quality. This also helps provide very high-quality grass silage for the winter months which minimises the requirement of meal in the diet of the weanling.
In a dairy-calf-to-beef system, managing grass early in the season can be difficult. Grass demand is typically low in spring as calves are being reared while yearling cattle’s intake is still relatively low. Therefore, it is important to close a decent proportion of the farm (as much as 50-60%) for an early cut of silage.