June 30, 2020

Grazing for cattle performance – it’s only half time

Ruth Moore, CAFRE Beef and Sheep Development Adviser

The correct management of grazing platforms will drive increased grass growth and utilisation. This is an important factor in profitable beef systems where the production of high quantities of quality grass will contribute to cost efficiencies.

Managing a surge in growth

Recent rainfall has contributed to a spike in grass growth in many parts of Northern Ireland. For farms with cattle, especially those with paddock grazing systems the challenge now is to capitalise on this, both in terms of animal performance and the potential to remove excess grass supplies as silage. Ensuring grass quality is maintained and stock continue to perform is important as we move into mid-season.

Remove excess grass covers promptly

Walk paddocks at least once per week. Grass budgeting software will help identify early those paddocks with surplus grass covers. On many farms stock will now be on the fourth round of grazing. This is often a time where cattle begin to reject some grass, especially around dung pats. Don’t force cattle to clean these paddocks out now especially when there is likely to be plenty of grass available. Doing so will only reduce animal performance and lead to some areas in paddocks being overgrazed resulting in reduced future grass growth potential.

A higher proportion of stem is also appearing in grazing swards resulting in decreased digestibility and reduced performance for all classes of stock. For cattle, target opening covers of no more than 3,000 kg dry matter per hectare (9-10 cm) and aim to graze down to 1,600 kg dry matter per hectare (4-5 cm).

If grass quality has already deteriorated and cattle are rejecting some areas it may be necessary to top paddocks. Maintaining the availability of high quality grass for cattle to achieve target growth rates is paramount. When topping, ensure the residual sward is cut down to 4-5 cm. Otherwise topping may be merely cosmetic and sward quality will not be greatly improved.

Where mixed grazing of cattle and sheep is practiced issues of grass rejection and the need for topping will be reduced. If sheep are part of the enterprise mix consider grazing cattle and sheep together.

In set stocking systems, topping 25-30% of the area at a time will help improve overall sward quality without diminishing grass supplies.

Monitor animal performance

How stock perform at grass is a good measure of how well your grassland is being managed.  In Business Development Groups across Northern Ireland members have often discussed enterprise performance using grass measuring and benchmarking data during their meetings.  Regular weighing of stock every 4-6 weeks will provide valuable data for decision making.  Male and female calves suckling beef cows should be gaining 1.3Kg and 1.1Kg of liveweight per day respectively.  Year-old steers and heifers turned out in mid-March should have gained 1.0kg  and 0.9Kg of liveweight per day respectively from grass alone.  If underperformance is identified check for any health issues and ensure cattle are accessing high quality swards.

Focusing on maintaining grass quality over the next few weeks will ensure that cattle continue to perform well for the second half of the grazing season.

Summary
  • Walk the entire grazing platform at least once per week;
  • Don’t force cattle to graze out paddocks too tightly where areas are being rejected – this could impact on animal performance and future growth;
  • Remove grass surpluses through round bales or by topping to manage grass supplies and ensure high quality grass in the next grazing round;
  • Assess stock performance regularly through weighing. This will help determine how good grassland management has been to date.
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