Grassland decisions and profitability

Grassland management decisions taken over the next three months will determine the profitability of dairy farms throughout Northern Ireland well into 2022, according to United Feeds’ ruminant nutrition advisor Alan Boyd and company nutritionist Matt Bourne.

Sunday, 7th March 2021, 9:01 am
United Feeds' Matt Bourne assesses early grass covers
United Feeds' Matt Bourne assesses early grass covers

“Swards have taken no hurt over the winter months, which should set farmers up well for the push to maximise milk output from grazed grass and silage over the next 12 months and beyond,” Alan explained.

“Grazed grass is the cheapest and most cost-effective feed that can be offered to cows, followed by high quality silage.”

“The latest costings data from Kingshay Dairy Consultancy, on behalf of Dale Farm, has confirmed the absolute importance of dairy farmers here in Northern Ireland securing the highest possible levels of milk from forage.”

“Milk from forage is the key driver behind all sustainable milk production systems. And the scope to improve this aspect of performance on local dairy farms is immense.”

Matt confirmed that the Dale Farm data shows that in 2020 the top 25% of herds ranked on margin over purchased feed achieved 2800 litres of milk from forage, while the bottom 25% only managed less than 1000 litres milk from forage. This shows not only the range of performance across NI dairy farms but also that all dairy farms have scope for further improvement in terms of milk from forage. Securing milk from forage output levels above 3,500L per cows is achievable here in Northern Ireland.

“But getting this level of performance in 2021/22 will depend wholly on grassland management decisions taken over the next few months.”

Soil nutrient management

So where to start? According to Alan, the achievement of improved milk from forage performance begins in the field and with the soil. Regular soil sampling is an essential part of any soil nutrient management plan.

He continued:“The best time to take soil samples is at the end of January when land is in its most dormant state. However, there is still time to submit samples for analysis prior to the spreading of slurry and the sowing of fertiliser this year.”

According to the United Feeds’ representatives, soil test results will confirm an accurate pH figure in tandem with soil P & K indices. These results can then be used to help plan slurry and fertiliser applications to maximise soil fertility and grass plant growth.

“Slurry has the capacity to meet all the P & K requirements of a growing grass sward during the spring months. But this will not be the case if either the P or K index is very low.”

Nitrogen fertiliser will act to optimise grass output throughout the growing season: but with various forms available - which should be used?

According to the United Feeds’ team, protected urea is a proven and effective nitrogen source for both grazing and silage swards under the growing conditions that prevail here in Northern Ireland.

Matt explained:“Sales of SustaiN protected urea have increased exponentially since we introduced the product to the market back in 2014.

“SustaiN fertilisers are protected by the urease inhibitor ‘Agrotain’ and they act to provide a steady release of nitrogen to grass plants throughout the growing season. AFBI research confirmed that SustaiN (Agrotain) performed at least as well as CAN across a range of conditions.

“Protected urea also produces lower nitrous oxide emissions compared to CAN and lowers ammonia losses compared to standard urea. So,SustaiN represents a win-win scenario from both a production and environmental point of view.”


According to Alan, swards that were well grazed out last autumn are well placed to deliver the milk from grass output required of them over the coming months.

“The focus now should be on building a grass wedge that will ensure optimal grass quality on a rotational basis throughout the 2021 grazing season,” he explained. This wedge is vital to ensure grass covers can be managed through the peak growth period.

“All paddocks should be walked, and grass covers assessed on a regular basis.”

Alan went on to make the point that grazed grass can make a significant contribution to most cows’ diets. He continued:“Farmers with spring calving cows will want to get their fresh calvers out into the paddocks as soon as possible. However, it should not be overlooked that these animals have the capacity to produce significant quantities of milk during the first 100 days of their lactation.

“Grazed grass alone will not deliver all the nutrition they need. Bespoke concentrate feeding regimes will be required in such circumstances. The United Feeds’ team can advise on how best to meet the full nutritional needs of spring calving cows on grazed grass diets.”

Alan also confirmed that autumn calving herds can also make optimal use of grazed grass throughout the spring and summer months.

“But these animals must be transitioned properly from winter diets which are often TMR based to one that is fresh grass based.

“Careful transition of the diet will ensure there are no significant losses in production and most importantly that the cows graze well and fully utilise the fresh grass available to them. United Feeds’ team of nutritional advisors are available to advise farmers on how best to prepare their cows for the grazing season ahead to maximise milk production from grass.”


Making high quality, first cut silage should be a priority for every dairy farmer in Northern Ireland.

“It forms the backbone of all winter feeding programmes, the highly digestible forage promotes greater forage dry matter intakes and increased energy supplied to the cow, helping to deliver the highest possible milk from forage levels,” Matt explained.

“A first cut date in early May should be targeted, although this date will be influenced by weather conditions and the progress of grass plant growth through the spring. This early first cut sets the baseline for a minimum three cut production schedule.

“Maximising forage quality and minimising losses are critically important facets of the silage making process.

“Many years experience here in Northern Ireland has confirmed that applying the inoculant Sil-All 4x4 will help farmers achieve these objectives when making silage. Alongside good silage making practices, the combination of multi strain bacteria and enzymes in Sil-All will ensure a rapid and efficient fermentation. The result being more nutrients preserved in the crop, reduced ensiling dry matter losses, increased aerobic stability of the clamp at feed out and ultimately maximised forage dry matter intake which will achieve improved milk from forage.

“The importance of feeding high-quality well-preserved silage cannot be underestimated, a study at the University of Wisconsin has shown that feeding cows with 5% spoiled silage can reduce milk production by up to 1.8kg milk/cow/day.”

Matt concluded: “It doesn’t matter if silage is made in clamp or in bales: the driver in either case is that of maximising forage quality, to maximise milk from forage.

The spring time presents farmers with a great opportunity to make best use of their most valuable resource, grass. United Feeds staff are available to provide advice on improving feed efficiency on farm through improved grazing management and higher quality silage.

For further advice on preparing for the seasons ahead visit, contact your local United Feeds Ruminant Nutrition Advisor or call 028 9075 9000.