By Deric Charlton and Dr Clive Dalton
- Lifestylers love riding around on machinery topping pastures.
- It certainly makes the place look tidy for a while.
- When topping pastures, remember you’re spending money on tractor fuel and wear-and-tear.
- There’s always a danger that paddocks will be “scalped” - and if it turns dry, you’ll have hastened drying-out, having removed any protection against the sun.
- You could be providing the ideal dead litter in the pasture that the facial eczema fungus loves.
- Why not use some older animals (yours or the neighbours) to clean up the surplus pasture?
Hazards of winter grazing
- Concentrating stock on pastures in wet conditions will cause treading or pugging damage.
- The pasture plants end up being pressed into the soil and their growing points are damaged.
- It can take months for them to recover and you will also have done long-term damage to the soil’s crumb structure.
- In very wet conditions when pugging is likely, remove stock to a paddock that you can sacrifice, or put them on a race or concrete yard for part of the day.
- Feed livestock hay to keep them busy, so they don’t spend all their time walking the fences looking for feed.
“Putting and taking” stock
You can put more stock on to eat surpluses and remove them during feed deficits.
It’s good theory, but difficult in practice, for several reasons:
- You will need money to buy stock.
- You may not make money when you sell them.
- You’ll have more stock agent’s commission and transport to pay.
- You should have a reliable source of animals.
- You may need extra land to hold them during feed deficits.
- DM in feed supplements will cost you 3-4 times that of grazed pasture, and their nutritive value is usually lower.
- If you make supplements as silage, balage or hay, make sure they are of highest possible quality.
- Make silage when there are 15-20% seed heads in the pasture.
- Make hay when the pasture plants are still leafy.
- If you do nothing and leave the pasture for deferred grazing or standing hay, its feeding value will vary enormously and will usually equate to poor hay.
- The big advantage of making early silage is that you’ll be able to return the paddock to the grazing rotation very quickly, and much quicker than if you made hay.
PASTURE GRAZING IN A NUTSHELL
- The challenge - to find the balance between maintaining good plant root reserves, maintain enough leaf area on the pasture to keep the food factory working, and still make sure that the animals’ particular nutritional needs are met.
- Keep pastures at the green leafy stage as long as possible - this is when plants provide the highest quality feed.
- When pasture plants go to seed, feed quality drops dramatically.
- In spring, keep control of as many paddocks as you can, and conserve any surplus feed from paddocks that are going to head as silage, baleage or hay.
- Don’t graze pastures too closely (about 30mm for most stock) as it slows recovery and may damage the plants’ growth points.
- If you graze too hard and pastures open up, weed seeds will germinate and colonise any bare areas.
- In dry summer periods feed stock silage, baleage or hay when the stock need it.
- Ration any autumn flush carefully, to build up a surplus ahead of the stock - to supply winter feed and to save money on supplements.
- Avoid applying nitrogen fertiliser, just hoping for extra feed. Nitrogen fertiliser must be used strategically, so work out when to apply it to plan when the feed flush will occur.
- Grasses and clovers will not grow when soil temperatures at 15cm depth are low - below 6°C.
- Avoid damaging pastures in winter by pugging, as this will delay growth and open up pastures for weeds to invade.
- Develop a fertiliser policy - replace the plant nutrients removed by what you send off the farm.
- Keep weeds under control - one year’s seeding means seven year’s weeding!
- If your pastures don’t contain vigorous and productive grass and clover species, plan a pasture renovation programme for the next autumn or spring.