The grass-growing season has, once again, thrown up unprecedented circumstances, enabling me to hold an ancient, crooked finger in the air while lecturing all young farmers on the never-ending lessons to be absorbed within agriculture.
With a 60th birthday just around the corner, you might think I’d know it all by now, but no, my learning curve is continuing an upward trajectory.
The escalation in fertiliser prices resulted in me drastically reducing application rates for both silage and grazing swards. And yet, grass yields have been as strong as I can ever remember for this farm, prompting me to wonder how many tonnes I may have wasted over the decades?
Let’s face it, when nitrogen was £160/t (it wasn’t that long ago), the easiest decision in the world was to dust a bag or so across a few fields, mostly as an insurance policy.
However, this year I concentrated my efforts on resting more acres over the winter and didn’t graze some fields at all during the springtime. At this point, I must admit that poor management yet again was a major contributor to some of my farming decisions.
A few weeks ago, despite glancing over the hedge at what appeared to be decent yields of grass for silage, it was barely Balmoral Show time, so my swards of grass couldn’t possibly be ready for baling, could they? And anyway, my dairy farming neighbours hadn’t started, so that was definitive proof that it was too early to cut grass. With hindsight, I was wrong.
I wandered into an ungrazed field on 23 May and realised that it was a far heavier crop than I had assumed, and the growth stage was about 10 days further on than I had realised.
Let’s face it, when nitrogen was £160/t (it wasn’t that long ago), the easiest decision in the world was to dust a bag or so across a few fields
This triggered 10 days of mowing, tedding, baling, and stacking of bales from various fields, during which the ever-changing nature of the weather meant we were never overly confident of getting no rain.
My assumption that the heavy covers on the ungrazed fields were largely due to a mild winter was only partly correct too. A 12-acre field at home had ewes wintered on it until the end of January, yet yielded 12 bales per acre of tedded grass (mowed on 31 May).
All silage fields received less than 40 units per acre of nitrogen – I didn’t think it possible for a bag and a half of chalk to grow that amount of grass.
If I had to predict silage quality for the winter ahead, I’d say all the bales are high dry matter material, with about half of them being ideal for D-value and the other half possibly showing too much stem.
Therefore, apart from being surprised at the yields of grass with minimal amounts of fertiliser, I am equally shocked that May-cut grass is likely to throw up an analysis that shows lower energy values.
I have a suspicion that this year’s growing conditions may lull some of us (well, me) into a false sense of security and could easily lead me towards continuing to assume that a light spattering of artificial is all that’s needed to sort out silage for the year ahead.
In truth, a return to more ‘normal’ Ulster weather may necessitate reverting to a bit more of the bagged stuff.