2020 has been a turbulent year in many ways, including the unpredictability of the weather. The impact that this has on farm can be huge. Bad weather can have major effects on forage availability which often leads to an increased use of expensive, and sometimes less sustainable, alternatives.
Aiming to develop better predictions for grass growth & utilisation is GrassCheckGB, a nationwide initiative involving 50 beef, sheep & dairy farms, working alongside CIEL, AFBI and Rothamsted Research, the three GB Levy Boards – AHDB Beef & Lamb, HCC, QMS, and industry sponsors: Datamars Livestock, Germinal, Waitrose & Partners, Handley Enterprises and Sciantec Analytical. For the second consecutive year, grass growth, quality, soil data & meteorological data has been captured across the country throughout the grazing season.
Review of the 2020 grazing season
February 2020 was the wettest on record, with 237% average rainfall across the UK. By May, the situation had changed, and a significant moisture deficit had developed; GrassCheckGB farms saw just 42.6% of typical rainfall in May 2020. Grass growth rates fell to just 60% of what is expected at the peak of our grass growing season. However, the spring saw above average sunshine hours, leading to excellent grass quality in the grass which was being produced, albeit in smaller quantities. Average weekly ME values ranged from 11.7-12.2 MJ/kg DM, with high DM values of 20 -27% in April – June 2020. Grass quality remained good throughout the season, with ME averaging 11.7 MJ/kg DM and an overall average for DM of 20.9%.
Although the weather had settled by summer and early autumn, grass growth rates were still not high enough to make up for lost grass growth earlier in the year. In October, conditions worsened once again. Storms brought heavy rainfall and October 2020 saw rainfall 142% of average. Many animals had to be housed early but, where ground conditions allowed, on-off grazing was possible to utilise late season grass growth rates of >20 kg DM/ha/d throughout October.
The 2020 grazing season saw average grass yields fall by over 1.4 t DM/h (compared to 2019 figures) to 9.5 t DM/ha. This highlights the importance of being able to predict grass growth in order to adapt management to increase grass utilisation, and to allow farmers to plan and prepare for any shortfalls.
A forward look
As GrassCheckGB enters its third year in 2021, it is hard not to get excited about the future of grassland management. Grass provides an important food source to UK ruminants, as we know, but it also offers the ability to produce food where crops cannot be grown, and provides vital carbon capture, as well as a habitat for many species of wildlife. As producers, retailers and consumers start to think about their environmental impact more consciously, could there be a bigger role for grass to play? What technology could be used to accurately predict grass growth and carbon capture? What areas need to be investigated further?
Please contact Nikki Dalby if you would like more information or would like to get involved.