Survey to look at grassland potential

Enjoying the craic at this week's NBA event: James May, Portadown and Mark Crawford, Top Stock for Cattle
Enjoying the craic at this week's NBA event: James May, Portadown and Mark Crawford, Top Stock for Cattle

Research staff at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) are undertaking a survey of 200 dairy and beef farmers in Northern Ireland to find out why so many of them are not making best use of grass.

“Getting all the information gathered should take about six months,” confirmed Dr Francis Lively, who is based at AFBI’s Hillsborough research centre in Co Down.

“This should allow us to publish the final conclusions and recommendations in the autumn.”

Lively was one of the speakers participating in the seminars organised as part of this week’s ‘Northern Ireland Beef Expo’ event.

He added:“We know that it is possible to produce up to 15t/ha of grass dry matter.

“However, this figure drops alarmingly to 4t/ha on local beef farms. The equivalent figure on dairy units is in the region of 7.5t/ha. The average grassland production figure for Grass Check farms in Northern Ireland last year was 11t/ha.

“But that’s only part of the puzzle. The difference in production output between farms is one issue. However, we also know that the variation between the performance levels of individual fields within the same farm is equally stark.

“In at least one case that I am aware of the difference is in the region of 8t/ha.”

The AFBI survey has been designed to allow Lively and his colleagues investigate the impact of all the factors that combine to determine grassland output. These include drainage characteristics, pH values and soil fertility levels.

Lively continued: “Dairy farmers tend to use higher fertiliser application rates than is the case with their beef counterparts. But this factor does not account for the exceptionally wide variations in grassland output that are currently being achieved here in Northern Ireland.”

He went on to point out that efficient grassland farming is very environmentally friendly.

“This is undoubtedly the case when ruminant animals are achieving high levels of performance from grazed grass. However, the opposite holds if grassland output is poor and animal performance levels are impacted upon accordingly.

“There is also scope for stock to achieve high levels of compensatory growth when they are switched to diets comprising high quality silage and concentrates during the winter months.”

Lively concluded: “It’s all about increasing grass dry matter output per hectare. Our research has shown that every 1t/ha improvement in this regard is worth an additional £218 to the farmer.”