Old wayscan be the best way
All 2012 grazing and winter-feed plans were severely disrupted by the weather, and farmers had to take every chance they could to avail of dry spells.
With hindsight, some farmers would have done a little better if they knew what was facing them last March.
Following a fine early spring, farmers on reasonably-good land who followed the traditional and proven practice of closing for first cut silage at the end of March came out best — even if this required some extra supplementation.
The more modern practice on some highly-stocked farms of closing for silage only when there is surplus grass is risky, especially in a year like this.
We read and hear a lot about grazing systems with very heavy stocking rates, extremely tight grazing and using very little concentrates.
The advocates of this system were very prominent in April and May this year, persuading dairy farmers not to feed any concentrates, and this generally resulted in low milk production, little or no grass being closed for silage and grazing pastures too tightly. This made a bad situation worse.
This system can give satisfactory results in an average year, but generally not as satisfactory as the more tried-and-tested system of grazing to about two inches (4cm to 5cm) and closing for first cut at the end of March.
Even in a year like this, there was a fair amount of early silage harvested, and this significantly increased the area available for grazing.
High stocking rates and extremely tight grazing are very risky, necessitating growth rates to be on target almost every day of the rotation, to ensure satisfactory pre-grazing covers.
Very intensive systems can run into severe problems on drought-prone areas, or in wet situations, and often necessitate lots of supplementary intervention.
At a more moderate stocking rate to suit the farm and an 18-to-21-day rotation, periods of slow and fast growth can be much more easily overcome by varying rotation lengths and taking out surplus paddocks for bales.
With the average stocking rate of Irish dairy farms well under two cows per hectare, and most of our better spring-calving dairy herds stocked at between two and 2.4 cows per hectare (dairy profit monitor data indicates 2.1), there seems little reason for most farmers to be adopting very intensive and difficult grazing systems.
Most reseeded, well-managed farms with fairly dry land can comfortably carry 2.3 to 2.6 cows per hectare, but going above this level is unnecessary for most, and puts strain on the system.
If farmers are very limited by their cow grazing platform, and if they have sufficient quota, they may have to be more intensively stocked.
Of course, stocking rates will always have to be much lower in heavy land.
Matching stocking rates with likely grass production and utilisation makes it easier to manage the grazing system.
When farmers reseed a lot of their pastures in a short period of time, there could be up to a 50% increase in grass production, and it is very important to have plans in place to efficiently utilise the increased production.
If stocking rates are not increased in line with grass production, it could lead to deteriorating grass quality, if sufficient areas are not conserved for silage.
Whatever system of stocking and grazing management is adopted, it should be as robust as possible under a wide range of weather conditions and suitable for the farm and management concerned.
The most important aspect of dairying is to ensure cows have as much highly-digestible grass as possible, but this should be achieved with minimum effort and simplicity.
As regards this year, managing any system was difficult, but it was easier on dry land with moderate stocking rate.