Agroup of cows have been selected for turning out to grass on James King’s farm near Ballymena, Co Antrim.

Speaking at a virtual farm walk, James described these 40 cows as “bulletproof”. The group is made up of autumn calvers that are yielding under 30l, are scanned in-calf and are in good body condition.

“It’s the sort of cow that can go out to grass early and, if the weather goes against them or they have to be housed again for a while, it doesn’t do them any harm,” James said.

The same approach was taken on the King farm last year and it made grassland management easier in April and May.

“It allowed us to get the grass wedge established early. It worked a treat because we had grass at different covers and the wedge looked after itself in later rotations,” James said.

On farms where turnout is delayed, it will mean there are heavy covers across the milking platform, which makes it harder to manage when growth picks up pace.

James has started his weekly grass walks for the 2021 season and the latest figures show that average farm cover is 2,500kg DM/ha, which equates to 1,000kg DM/ha available cover. Growth rate over the past week was higher than expected at 16kg DM/ha/day.

Average farm cover stands at 2,500kg DM/ha and growth rate last week was 16kg DM/ha/day.

There is plenty of grass on the King farm and ground conditions are good following dry weather throughout late February and early March. Turnout was held up by a few days as a laneway was being resurfaced, but this has been completed and the “bulletproof” group will be at grass this week.

There are a few paddocks on the King farm that measured over 3,000kg DM/ha and cows will be put into these heavier covers first.

Farmers that have less grass than James should still consider getting some cows out, as lower covers at around 2,700kg DM/ha are adequate for cows at this time of year.


James started putting plans in place for spring grazing last autumn. He has become disciplined in not overgrazing covers at the back end or over the winter.

“In previous years, we would have had heifers grazing as late as possible to save silage, but it meant we had no grass to turn cows out to once ground conditions improved in the early spring,” James said.

James King speaking to Peter McCann during the virtual farm walk.

A small batch of sheep that belong to a family member came on to the King farm for a few weeks over the winter.

Despite being taken off relatively early in mid-January, the paddocks that were grazed still have the lowest covers and growth rates across the milking platform.

Milk quality

Also speaking at the webinar, Niall McCarron, Lakeland Dairies, said that a common issue is that, after an initial increase, milk yields and protein levels drop off when cows get settled at grass. However, he described this as a “self-made problem” in most cases.

“Protein and yields will take a jump when cows get out, particularly among autumn calvers. This is because dry matter intakes go up and energy in grass is very good at this time of year,” Niall said.

“If cows don’t get out until mid or late April, covers soon become too heavy, grass quality reduces, and production takes a hit. You need to get them out early, get the wedge started and hit quality grass each time,” he said.

Two-thirds of soils are sub-optimal

A soil sampling scheme carried out by Lakeland Dairies during the 2020/21 winter found that almost two-thirds of samples had sub-optimal fertility.

Over 2,300 samples were taken across 203 farms in Northern Ireland and only 37% of soils did not require additional lime, phosphorus (P), or potassium (K).

The general recommendation in Northern Ireland is that grassland has a soil pH of 6.0 or greater and 71% of Lakeland samples achieved this.

However, in the Republic of Ireland, it is recommended that soil pH is 6.3 or more.

In the Lakeland scheme, only 40% of samples met this criteria.

In Northern Ireland, the Olsen soil test is used and the recommendation for intensive grassland soils is to have a P index of 2+ and K index of 2-. In the Lakeland scheme, 68% of samples had an index 2+ or greater for P, and 65% were 2- or more for K.

Lakeland’s Niall McCarron said that there was a wider variation in K levels across farms than P levels. When summarised by county, K indexes were lower in the west, with 49% of samples in Derry and 55% in Tyrone below optimal levels.

Niall said the results showed that within individual farms, K levels are often lower in fields that are further from yards.

“If you know enough slurry isn’t going on, make sure and put the potash on. There are plenty of good products out there. Potash is not the most expensive fertiliser,” he said.

Virtual farm walk

  • The free webinar from James King’s farm is available to watch anytime here.
  • The 50-minute video includes an overview of soil analysis results and fertiliser plans for the King farm, plus plans for the 2021 grazing season.