2021: A very different year for grass growth and management

The first half of the 2021 year has proved to be very challenging for farmers across Northern Ireland.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 8:38 am
Ryan Young’s paddocks are sized for moving the suckler herd every three days depending on grass growth and covers.
Ryan Young’s paddocks are sized for moving the suckler herd every three days depending on grass growth and covers.

Hannah McNelis, CAFRE Beef and Sheep Adviser explains how a harsh winter has rolled into a very wet and cold spring, leaving grass growth and ground conditions difficult on farms.

Growth has slowly started to improve on farms in recent weeks but cold winds and showers of rain are never far away. Managing stock at grass has become increasingly difficult with some choosing to rehouse cattle to save ground conditions.

Ryan Young farms with his father John on Curryfree Road, Newbuildings, Co. Londonderry. Ryan and John run a mixed suckler and sheep farm consisting of a spring calving herd of 55 cows and 150 ewes. Significant efforts have been made across the farm in recent years to improve grassland management and improve the soil fertility of the home farm.

Ryan Young using the plate meter to assess exiting covers on sheep grazing.

Hannah explains that annual soil sampling has highlighted deficits in lime and potash levels on the farm. Regular liming has greatly helped in the production of more grass with slurry and muriate of potash used to maintain soil nutrients. Ryan has had his silage sampled through his Business Development Group (BDG) over the last few years, seeing a year on year improvement in quality due to better grass management.

In 2020 Ryan availed of a platemeter and a year’s subscription to AgriNet through his BDG. He began measuring grass in the summer of 2020, measuring on a weekly basis and working with Hannah to produce a grass wedge. “We had been using rotational grazing in the last four years. We reseeded a block of 10ha and paddock grazing was the best way we could make the most of new grass.”

Ryan set up the fixed divisions of his paddocks using three strands of high tensile wire with heavy duty insulators on to wooden posts for the sheep and single strand wire for cows and calves. Using reels he then subdivided the area into 1ha paddocks. “The reels work well as they can be easily removed for fertilizing and cutting bales.”

Ryan ran two mobs of stock around the paddocks for the summer, one consisting of 80 twin bearing ewes and 18 bullocks and the other with 34 cows and calves. Stock were moved every three days following the grass wedge with heavy covers cut out for bales. Water was brought to the sheep paddocks by extending the water pipe from existing drinkers in some of the fields and allowing drinkers to service two paddocks at a time. The cattle paddocks were serviced with a water bowser and filled weekly. “This year I hope to extend the water pipe down to the cattle paddocks to reduce labour and time. Last year there was a fairly significant amount of time spent on the set up of the paddocks, but this year it’s a real benefit to have everything set up and ready.”

Hannah McNelis

Hannah highlights that growth has been slow on the paddocks in the spring of 2021, however Ryan has started measuring weekly since the beginning of May. “This year has been more challenging with lower grass growth. We would have had several surplus paddocks cut for bales by now but we don’t have that luxury this year.”

The ewes grazed silage ground until the end of March and by measuring opening covers on the paddocks Ryan knew when there was enough grass cover to maintain the ewes. “As measuring continues I will add more stock to meet the grass growth, it’s different to last year’s approach but it will work itself out in the coming weeks. I plan to have the cows grouped together on the paddocks in the first days of June to prepare for the breeding season.”

A burst of growth is hopefully imminent across the country if temperatures improve in June. Ryan finds that measuring allows him to monitor grass growth on the farm and take action if there is a surplus.

A major benefit of the system has been the improved handling of stock. “The stock get used to being moved and they’re very quiet to work with. As the calves get older they graze ahead of the cows under the wire, always getting the best quality grass.”

It only takes an hour in the week to measure the paddocks, time which ties in with checking stock and moving fences.

The Business Development Group Scheme is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.