Could you make more money from your grassland?

Could you make more money from your grassland?
Grass is the cheapest source of energy for livestock. No one disputes that. Nor that grassland productivity directly improves the profitability of your livestock enterprise. A fact that is especially relevant given today’s feed costs and market economics. Getting the most from your grassland requires planning and attention to detail. Sward performance is affected by soil structure and condition, nutrient levels, re-seeding frequency and method, seed mixture choice, and the appropriate and timely application of fertilisers and herbicides. But often time is against you. Every week there are more pressing issues: lame sheep, problem cows, vet visits to prepare for, and yet more paperwork. In busy times, it’s easy to fall behind on grassland maintenance, and swards fall short of their potential.
The information on this website is designed to help you re-direct your time and efforts to the areas of grassland management which are most limiting to field productivity. After identifying which fields will most benefit from some extra attention, make it your priority this year to focus on improving them. Follow the guidelines on why, how and when to take the necessary actions. At the very least, just do one thing extra to your grassland this year, in addition to your normal practices. You may opt to rid all weeds from all your grassland. Or you may select key fields for a complete overhaul – plough them up, soil-test, correct P and K indices, destroy leatherjacket populations and reseed with a new ley mixture.


Getting Started : Field Inspections
The first step is to evaluate the state of your grassland so you can identify what actions, on which fields, will give the most significant returns.
Create an inspection report-  A useful tool is an inspection report for each field which records type of ley and date sown, ground cover, weed content, soil indices, and history of drainage/compaction.  If you would like a template report, please just give me a call and I can email you one.


Walk the field and evaluate the sward
Go into the field and stop in at least 3 different places. Look at the grass in front of your feet. Imagine a 1m square frame and in that area estimate what percentage of the ground is covered with plants and how much is bare. Next, look at the sward content. The only plants that should be present are the ones you have sown, e.g. ryegrasses, timothy and clovers. Estimate the percentage of weeds to the identifiable non-weed grasses.   Why not send me a few pictures of individual plants and I would be happy to help you with the identification.
Check for compaction
At each stopping point, take a spade and dig out a square clod of earth. Drop this onto the ground and vertical fissures should appear. If the ground is compacted, then only horizontal fissures will be seen. In winter, also look out for especially wet areas.


Identify focus for improvements
Review your assessments to identify where there is the best potential to make improvements to grassland quality and/or quantity. Include consideration of the age of the ley: quality and dry matter yields deteriorate as leys get older. And read on for help and advice on best practice grassland management. How much is weed? Ryegrass has a distinctive purple base of stem.  What’s the potential to improve?


Resolving poor drainage
Soil can become waterlogged through poor drainage. Typical signs are ponding, discoloration of the grass and poaching. Ensure field ditches are clear so water does not back up, and repair broken field drains. Poor soil structure is the most common cause of waterlogging and reduced growth, and different problems require different treatments, as follows.


Breaking up surface capping
Surface ‘capping’ is caused by large amounts of rain puddling the surface together and preventing air interchange with the roots. It is best alleviated using a slitter. The knife blades typically penetrate up to 125mm deep to improve water and air movement.


Removing Compaction
Compaction under grassland occurs in light and heavy soils alike. Sub-soiling removes compaction so water can move freely down the soil profile, allowing air interchange through the structure. It also improves the ability to travel on land earlier in the spring, promotes earlier growth, and hence allows earlier turnout or silage making. Livestock themselves cause shallow soil pans 100-150mm deep simply through the pressure exerted by hooves or poaching when animals are left on grass in wet conditions. Compaction from machinery damage, as frequently found in silage fields, is deeper at 200-275mm. Assess what type of compaction the field is suffering from, then subsoil 50mm below the pan using a sward lifter. Working the ground any deeper just uses more diesel and takes more time. Is standing water due to poor drainage or compaction? Aerating the ground using a sward slitter combats surface compaction Sward-lifting removes compaction without damaging the ley.


Improving Grass Nutrition
To cost-effectively improve grass yields, calculate the nutrients needed, and then tailor fertiliser applications to meet this requirement.


Soil nutrient requirements
Soil testing is an essential and inexpensive way to assess nutrient levels. Fields should be tested every 3-5 years to ensure fertility and pH are maintained. Testing one quarter of the farm every year is an easy way to do this; it can be helpful to test more often if there is a known problem in a field, For successful establishment, grass and clover need a pH of 6.0–6.5. Grass needs P and K indices of 2 and 2-, and clover needs P and K values of at least 2.
 Calculate nutrients added in slurry and FYM Slurry provides varying amounts of N, P and K. Nutrient levels can be determined by home-test kits, book values or by laboratory analysis which also provides the readily available portion of the N. This information allows you to calculate the nutrient contribution from the slurry and FYM.
Combine soil test results with a manure management plan to identify the best fields to spread manure and maintain indices. Tailoring fertiliser applications Having deducted the nutrients available in the manures from the total requirement, select an appropriate fertiliser to supply the remaining necessary nutrients.
Soil test fields every 3-5 years Account for nutrients spread in slurry and FYM Select a fertiliser to supply the necessary nutrients Improving grass nutrition Better grass yields can often be obtained from improving existing swards, this also enables continued use without taking a field out of production.


Weed grasses and old grasses
Old leys might still look green, but are less productive than new ones. Frequently weed grasses like Yorkshire Fog and Meadow Grass have invaded the sward. These are less palatable, indigestible and respond poorly to nitrogen inputs. Even the older grass varieties originally sown are less efficient at utilising nitrogen than modern varieties, and will not have the vigour of young plants. Older plants are also less digestible, so quality is poorer. Overseeding will rejuvenate old leys.


Improve ground cover
Old leys often contain bare areas. Reasons include: disease, winterkill, leatherjackets, poaching – especially around gates and troughs, or where herbicide application has killed off weeds and left an open space. Flooding also kills grass. As well as being unproductive, bare areas are an open invitation for weeds and weed grasses. Overseed to fill these gaps, preferably with a high tetraploid ryegrass mixture which will compete more effectively in an established sward.


Reduce weed populations
Weeds are less palatable and contain less energy than grass. For every 1% of weed infestation that’s a loss of 1% of grassland productivity. Effective weed control is reliant on targeting them at the right growth stage. For persistent weeds like docks, select a herbicide that tackles the foliage, as well as translocating down to the roots to prevent re-growth next year.


Grass harrowing
Harrowing drags out shallow-rooted weeds like chickweed and annual meadow grass as well as moss and trash from the sward bottom. This gives more space for the existing grass to grow more vigorously. Harrowing also releases locked-up surface nitrogen to the ley and opens up the soil surface to let oxygen get to the roots.


Overseeding an existing ley is an excellent way to boost sward density and yields. Either graze the ley down hard or do this after 2nd cut silage, so that grass length is short and less competitive for new seedlings. Harrowing will create bare areas of ground into which the fallen seed can establish and a combination of harrow and seeder is a cost-effective operation. When overseeding, a small amount of tilth needs to be created by the harrow or, in hard conditions, a previous operation. For both overseeding and reseeding, grass and clover seed needs to be on, or just under, the surface. Roll the ground afterwards – at least twice – to ensure soil to seed contact is established.


Top up sulphur levels in soil
A shortage of sulphur depresses silage yield and quality (protein and sugar levels), and is most likely to occur after first cut. Obtaining a herbage N:S ratio analysis will help to decide whether the herbage is deficient in sulphur. A ratio of 13:1 or greater indicates deficiency, whilst the S content should be in the range 0.2-0.4%. Using a sulphur-containing fertiliser from late spring can boost yield and quality for cutting and grazing. Similarly, a lack of NPK will affect plant growth – K is particularly important with regard to efficiency of N use, so without sufficient K, money is being wasted. Insufficient P will also hamper growth, especially in spring. It is cheaper to maintain indices than increase them!