The farm-level adoption of grazing technologies, such as PastureBase Ireland (PBI), has been critical for consistently achieving optimal herbage mass.

For example, PBI users have reduced herbage mass from 1,601kg of DM/ha in 2017 to 1,558kg of DM/ha in 2020, on average across the whole year.

Furthermore, this technology helps to increase the duration of the grazing season through the use of autumn and spring rotation planners.

Increasing the duration of the grazing season can improve animal performance and reduce methane emissions.

Over the last four years, the average grazing season length for PBI users was 40 days longer (278 days) compared with the National Farm Survey (238 days).

The inclusion of white clover in perennial ryegrass (PRG) swards increased the milk production efficiency of lactating dairy cows (+48 kg of milk solids/cow), while simultaneously reducing the amount of chemical nitrogen fertiliser required (-100kg of nitrogen/ha).

Increased dry matter intake (DMI) and pasture digestibility have been suggested to contribute to this increased milk production efficiency. However, amino acid (AA) supply might also play a role. In an experiment incorporating a novel experimental procedure (omasal sampling), it was observed that extensive rumen degradation of perennial ryegrass AA occurs, which indicates that cows consuming pasture-based diets are highly dependent on microbial AA to support metabolisable AA supply.

In a follow-up experiment, strategically supplementing cows fed a grass-only diet with a small quantity of a rumen-protected protein resulted in a large milk response, highlighting that specific nutrients are limiting milk production on grass-only diets.

Perennial ryegrass typically contributes 50% to 90% of the diet when cows consume perennial ryegrass-white clover swards, emphasising the importance of continued development of enhanced perennial ryegrass cultivars.

The recent introduction of perennial ryegrass nutritive value evaluation into testing systems, as well as the inclusion of a “quality” sub-index into the Teagasc pasture profit index, will likely enhance the rate of genetic gain for nutritional value of grass.

Nutritive value

A pre-requisite to exploiting improvements in the nutritive value of pasture is the optimisation of pasture management practices, which can help avoid grazing swards with a high herbage mass.

High herbage mass swards contain increased amounts of fibre. This fibre has a slower rate of digestion and an increased concentration of indigestible material when compared with optimal herbage mass swards.

Results from a new laboratory-based fibre digestibility analysis demonstrated that the fibre in swards with optimal herbage mass comprises a large potentially digestible pool that degrades rapidly in the rumen. Grazing these swards increases DMI, digestibility and milk production efficiency and reduces methane production.