An obvious and often overlooked aspect of good dairy farming is grassland management. Maximising your efficiency in this area can make a big difference. This will come as no surprise to anybody, but what can dairy farmers do to increase grass yields?
Know the nutrient content of your soil
Soil tests will tell you what your soil lacks and what it does not need. This will save you plenty of money when fertilizing. Sometimes we think we didn't put out enough nitrogen, when it could be a phosphorus shortage that's causing stagnation. Regular soil tests across individual paddocks should be rotated each year so that at least every paddock is tested at least every two or three years.
Look after you cows' health: Know the nutrient content of your silage
Winter feeding is necessary but if you know what you are giving your cows you can better judge what they need. Just under a third of silage has been found to contain less than 10% protein so to keep your herd in good condition through winter, make sure they are getting everything they need.
Ultimately, a cow is a grass eater so this is the food which will be most efficiently converted and utilised by the cow. Protein concentrates are needed because of being indoors over winter but ideally a cow would survive entirely on grass. This being impossible, the goal of the farmer is to get as close to this ideal as possible, especially after calving. Watch out for deficiencies like calcium or phosphorus.
Graze early, graze often!
The best way to start the new year is to graze as early as possible. This requires planning, by having paddocks with grass on them through winter, ready to graze in spring. Choose your driest paddocks and plan to have them lush with grass so that your grazing season can begin as soon as weather permits. According to Michael O'Donovan of Moorepark, grass response to nitrogen is 10kgDM per 1kg applied in spring so early application is essential.
This will help prevent cows from losing condition and it will boost milk yields at a crucial time. The earlier you graze, the more grazings per season you will achieve. There is a risk of winter grass losing its palatability so the deadline is generally St Patrick's Day. It is necessary to close paddocks early in order to be able to open early. Spring grass has richer nutrient content than late-season growth so don't rob Peter to pay Paul.
Grazing management is another important aspect of maximising grassland efficiency. There are numerous schools of thought on grazing systems. Many swear by strip-grazing, but it can be destructive to heavy ground with lots of poaching in wet times. Some farmers have begun using an old-fashioned flail mower to cut the grass into swards, which increases labour and input costs, but reduces waste. Another method of reducing waste is to provide multiple entrances to paddocks so the ground does not get so cut up. Sequencing their usage will give you more mileage and more grass per season.
Whatever approach you take to actual grazing, maximising your grass return is dependent on replacing lost nutrients as soon as the paddock is empty of cows. This means in an ideal world fertilizing the day they leave. A chain harrow beneath your spreader will evenly distribute dung, replenishing DM and reducing those unpalatable tufts that cows refuse to eat.
It is not necessary to spend a fortune buying all your fertilizers in pellet form either. Clover will reduce your nitrogen needs and grass seed mixes are often more efficient than using single varieties. They offer more diversity, sustenance and hardiness. If you're feeling adventurous or you are an organic farmer, comfrey and nettles soaked in water or slurry will boost nitrogen and phosphorus content.
Many farmers now routinely measure their grass. Grassland management has become this micro-managed. Knowing the growth-rate of your paddocks will allow you to benefit from advance knowledge if something is not right.