Grassgrowth is well ahead of normal after the fifth warmest winter since recordsbegan. With temperatures averaging 5.2C between December and March; 1.5Cabove the UK average, its hardly surprising that many farmers are concernedabout managing their grass, particularly as soils remain saturated followingthe wettest winter on record.
Itis no different at Stoneleigh, the site of the Grassland & Muck Event,where agronomists are monitoring conditions to ensure optimum silage grass forthe machinery demonstrations on 21st and 22nd May. Thegrass is so far ahead that they have suggested it be mowed, and fertiliserapplications split into two, to try and control the growth.
Thegrass has not really stopped growing all winter, says Nigel Hester, areamanager at Yara. One of my customers in Cornwall already had 3200kg/ha of drymatter at the end of February, before anything had been fertilised.
Whileearly grass growth presents a wonderful opportunity for farmers to turnlivestock out early or take an early cut of silage, the practicalities are notquite so simple. If you turn stock onto wet ground it will cause too muchdamage and yet if you let the grass get away from you, it has long-termimplications for the rest of the season, says Mr Hester. On-off grazing isone possibility, to maximise grass intakes in a limited number of hours perday.
Oneoption to check grass growth is to delay nitrogen fertiliser applications. Butthe problem with that is that after such a wet winter soil nutrients will be atlow levels, and having been growing all winter, the grass will need feeding,he adds. Optimising spring applied nutrients will ensure high yields ofquality forage – efficient utilisation is the real challenge.
Farmersshould test their soil nutrient indices before creating a fertiliser schedule,says Mr Hester. Dont forget sulphur only 8% of grassland is getting baggedsulphur; it will improve nitrogen utilisation and you will most likely get ayield and quality response. And be patient wait for the right soil conditionsbefore travelling, or you will end up creating compaction problems.
The key to managing grass, whether grazed or ensiled, is to beflexible, says Dr Liz Genever, beef and sheep scientist at EBLEX. Farmers withgood infrastructure could graze their driest fields to take off winter growthand then shut up the leys for silage, for example. If taking an early cut ofsilage from a small number of fields, you could bale it rather than starting aclamp, she says. Also, adapt your nitrogen regime to make sure you arentstimulating more grass growth, which without good management, will affectquality later in the season.
If grazing, farmers should choose sheep or their lightest cattle weaned calves and yearlings as they will do less damage than heavier stock.And dont turn everything out at once try a small group to start with; dontbe too ambitious because grass can quickly disappear at this time of year.
For optimum grass yields and quality at this time of year, grassheights should be kept below 6cm for sheep and 10cm for cattle, says DrGenever. Monitor your grass growth every week or fortnight using a sward stickor measurement on the side of your wellies. That way you can plan ahead toensure supply is matching demand.
Another problem caused by the wet winter has been the ability toget on land to spread slurry and manure. There is the danger of grasscontamination when applying slurry to high covers, says Dr Genever. If thegrass is forward and you have to apply slurry, use a trailing shoe to minimisecontamination.
If possible, farmers could store slurry for later in the season,and apply bagged fertiliser in its place, she adds. Dont forget aboutphosphate and potash after the warm winter, the grass will be in need of it.
Where farmers delay applying nitrogen, or opt to take an early cutof silage, they must remember to leave one day of growth per 2.5kg/ha ofnitrogen applied before cutting it. If youre applying 100kg/ha you need toleave it 40 days, otherwise youll get high nitrates in the grass which canaffect fermentation and palatability of the silage, says Dr Genever. The keyis to plan ahead now and be flexible – how you manage your grass now willaffect yields and quality for the rest of the season.
Visitorsto the Grassland & Muck Event on 21st and 22nd Maywill be able to see a wide range of grassland machinery on display and meetmore than 240 exhibitors with the latest products and innovations. They canalso see muck spreading equipment in action and earn four BASIS points forattending. For more information or to book early-bird tickets visit www.grasslandevent.co.uk.