Grow more grass, use more grass, conference is urged

UGS prizewinners with UGS members and John Henning, Danske Bank (right)
UGS prizewinners with UGS members and John Henning, Danske Bank (right)
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This was the recurring theme of the speakers at the recent annual Ulster Grassland Society’s Conference at the RUAS Conference Centre, Balmoral.

A large crowd benefitted from the research and experience of the speakers who had a clear message that more could be done to exploit the potential of grass.

Newly elected UGS president David Johnston set the scene by highlighting that unlike much of Europe, grass yield in Northern Irelamd is not severely restricted by pests, drought, disease or winter damage.

Breeding for varieties offering higher production and improved nutritional quality has provided the potential for improvement that must be made use of by grassland farmers of all livestock enterprises.

Dr Michael O’Donavan, Moorepark, spoke of how grazing systems could be harnessed to be more profitable.

By splitting the grazing season into three distinct phases of spring, main season and autumn, differing tools can be used to improve production and utilisation.

He advocated that swards should be grazed at the three-leaf stage as grazing lighter covers can lower production by up to 40%.

He also highlighted the importance of soil fertility, farm infrastructure and perennial ryegrass content as key areas for improvement.

Using a web based database, Moorepark are currently measuring grass on a number of farms in ROI to build up a profile of what farms are achieving and what lessons can be learnt.

The top farms are achieving grass (grazing plus silage) yields of 14-16 tDM/ha through high soil fertility with low yield variation between high and low paddocks and more grazings per farm.

A focus on the beef sector was provided by Adam Woods, beef specialist with Teagasc and manager of the Teagasc/IFJ BETTER farm beef programme.

The aim of this is to generate more profitable beef farms through the use of simple technology in the areas of grassland management, breeding, animal health and financial management.

Adam indicated the variation in Gross Margins of differing beef systems within the programme, with grass based bull beef systems the most profitable in 2014.

He also addressed the key areas to improve grassland management and quoted that grass must be “grown in three weeks; eaten in three days”.

The trial work at Crichton Royal Farm was summarised by David Keiley, senior dairy consultant with SRUC.

Two main dairy herds are managed at separate locations, one based on home-grown feeds and the other relying on bought in feeds. Both herds are milked three times per day and are grouped into high and medium genetic merit.

Crops grown on the Home Grown Feed herd include grass, maize, red clover silage, crimped wheat, lucerne and spring beans with separated slurry used as much as possible to minimise bought in fertiliser.

In comparison the By Product system has a total reliance on purchased feeds with cows housed all year round.

David considered the costs and future of each system with a focus on maximising grass utilisation and Dry Matter Intakes within the Home Grown herd.

Liz Genever from EBLEX shone the spotlight on how relatively few farmers in England measure grass production, and for those that do, they are supported through a discussion group type format.

She demonstrated how the information can be used on beef and sheep farms to better match production to grass growth, hence lowering costs.

A simple tool like a sward stick can be used to easily measure grass height or developed to allocate grass on a rotational grazing system.

Winners of the 2014 Grassland Farmer of the Year and various category winners were also announced and the UGS is indebted to Danske Bank for the continued significant financial support for the society’s competition.

Colin Boggs, Banbridge won the Grassland Farmer of the Year with Alan Wallace, Antrim and Chris Catherwood, Newtownards runners up.