Autumn grazing and setting up for spring 2021

Tuesday 29.09.2020 , News

Managing grassland well at this time of year offers immediate financial gains, potentially boosts next year’s profitability and extends your grazing season says Germinal’s grassland expert, Helen Mathieu.

Each day stock can remain on pasture in autumn saves an estimated £1-3/head on housing, feed, labour and slurry disposal. Helen shares her top tips on making the most of your grass this autumn while setting yourself up for a flying start in the new year:

  • Carry out assessments of both grazing and cutting swards:
    • Assess soil structures and take remedial action when conditions allow
    • Identify the percentage of perennial ryegrass (PRG) within the swards, looking for a purple base to tillers and folded straight-edged leaves with a shiny underside. Aim for at least 65% PRG in grazing swards and 75% in cutting swards
    • Check white clover content in grazing leys is around 40% to increase intake, fix nitrogen and improve soil biology
  • Measure sward heights with a sward stick, plate meter or a simple visual tool such as a ruler or marks on the side of your boots. Record paddock by paddock and graze accordingly.
  • Aim for a target residual after the final grazing in each paddock of 1,500kg DM/ha for cattle and 1,200kg DM/ha for sheep. This allows for winter tillering, encourages high quality regrowth and sets up the right covers for spring.
  • Use back fences in paddocks being strip-grazed to prevent stock grazing regrowth.
  • Depending on the weather, look to start the last grazing rotation in late September or early October. Identify areas of grassland for deferred winter grazing. These are areas where buffer feeding may occur over winter if it suits your conditions.
  • Generally, aim to graze paddocks in the same order they’ll be grazed in spring. Swards with a higher percentage of perennial ryegrass are better quality and have greater spring growth than those containing more indigenous species.
  • To extend autumn grazing, identify gaps in availability. Grass growth drops off as days shorten. What took grass six days to achieve in summer might take three times as long in autumn. Increase rotation lengths from mid-September or extend grazing areas to increase supply.
  • Autumn grazing management on sheep and beef farms centres around body condition. Prioritise your highest quality grass for weaned stock or for flushing ewes.
  • Dry suckler cows, weanlings or animals destined for outwintering must have a good condition score and be given a full health check. Make sure they are wormed, vaccinated and receive a mineral bolus.
  • Do you need to supplement intakes during autumn grazing? Dairy cows can do well on grass in the autumn if they’re good grazers but research shows a 5kg DM intake difference between wet and dry days. As the weather deteriorates in autumn, demand as well as supply may decline triggering the need to supplement.
  • Autumn grazing requires good infrastructure to protect the vulnerable areas in grazed fields. On dairy farms, aim to use separate gateways to enter and exit the field for daily milkings and consider multiple water troughs to reduce the damage done around a single water point.
  • If cover heights are too high when you finish grazing, think about remedial action to protect quality going into spring. Heavy, high swards over the winter can lead to housed stock being faced with large amounts of low-quality dead material in spring.
  • Sheep can be a good tool for taking grass down effectively and reducing rejection sites in fields grazed by cattle without damaging soil condition. But they must be managed well and leave paddocks by the beginning of December to avoid them delaying regrowth for the spring.
  • Alternatively, if conditions allow, making some big bales for dry cows or youngstock is another option to manage excess covers and spring grass quality.
  • Check summer reseeds. Only graze them once they pass the ‘pull test’, i.e. grass rips when pulled between thumb and finger. If roots come up as well, the grass is not ready for grazing. Practise on/off grazing through the winter when conditions allow and never graze below 7cm to encourage tillering and regrowth.
  • Review this year’s sward performance. Which have performed well? Did reseeds match expectation? Was your fertiliser policy successful? Was fertiliser applied in the right places at the right time? What’s the plan for next year? Which fields might benefit from a reseed?