Farm set-up key to pasture management

By Jeanette Severs

Setting up farms to make the most of production in a challenging environment is as relevant in Albany, Western Australia and King Island, Tasmania, as it is in the Bega Valley, NSW, and Walpa, Victoria.

That was the message from veterinarian and principal of Scibus, Neil Moss, at a pasture management workshop at Walpa recently, sponsored by Agriculture Victoria.

Dr Moss focuses on a portfolio approach to whole farm planning, incorporating pasture and crop growth as an adjunct to animal health and milk production on dairy farms.

“In Australia, we have periods of good pasture production interspersed with very ordinary. We have a wide range of soil types in any farming district. So how do we set up our farms to make the most of production in a challenging environment,” Dr Moss said.

“The majority of nutrition on farm is pasture and crop. The challenge is providing year-round feed.

“Aim to try and have some aspect of the pasture system that can respond at any time of year to rain, when it occurs.”

He said 60 per cent of his client base was working with kikuyu, oversown through direct drilling with Italian rye-grass, oats, other legumes or grass such as fescue or prairie. What these dairy farmers share is a focus on setting up a pasture system that delivers year-round and can take advantage of moisture, whether that is rainfall or irrigation.

“Then any time it rains is treated as a spring break,” Dr Moss said.

“Dropping cereal into the mix enables an early spring growth of an extra 2–3 tonnes of dry matter before the flush of rye-grass comes through.

“There’s huge opportunity for return on investment if you can have that pasture growth occurring earlier into the spring flush. We’re buying that extra dry matter at a very low cost.”

Dr Moss said how much an individual farmer was prepared to spend on seed each season was up to their risk appetite.

He often recommends sowing brands that produce bulk, for that early spring flush; and be flexible about sowing rates to encourage density. Then liberally using gibberellic acid during the cool months to push growth once pasture has germinated (and in accordance with manufacturer’s directions).

[According to Western Australia’s agriculture department, gibberellic acid, a naturally occurring growth-promoting hormone in plants, stimulates cell division and elongation and is used to manipulate plant development.]

“That outlay is returned with the prices that some processors pay for milk produced on the shoulder seasons,” Dr Moss said.

He also recommends direct drilling to one inch or a light cultivation to broadcast seed, rather than heavy cultivation. These methods help retain the soil integrity. What is important is getting the seed into the top of the soil, protecting it from heat and enabling good cover after germination.

“If sowing into dry soil, rolling or at least dragging an upside-down set of harrows over the paddock after sowing can help even out germination,” Dr Moss said.

In discussing kikuyu, Dr Moss said it could drive milk production during winter, whether used in a dryland system or under irrigation.

“Kikuyu responds well to water and gibberellic acid can drive its growth rate in cool months,” he said.

He encouraged farmers to include kikuyu as part of a whole-of-farm pasture system, sown with annual and irrigated rye-grasses, a cereal crop and, for example, plantain, prairie grass and legumes for winter grazing to offset the slowdown of kikuyu growth; and to intensify kikuyu in the system by applying nitrogen to enjoy grazing benefits on the shoulders of winter.

“It should be oversown between mid-March to Anzac Day to boost its value during winter. Sowing herbs in early March takes advantage of warmer soils,” Dr Moss said.

Grazing a high-fibre feed can result in an increased production of 2 kg milk solids overnight.

He also suggested sowing for a silage crop in March, as part of long-term planning.

With sowing often dependent on a weather break, he recommended considering short and long season pasture options.

“A brassica in with an annual rye-grass can be low-cost options to push grazing within six weeks,” Dr Moss said.

Part of his presentation dealt with replenishing minerals in the soil. Dr Moss said if grazing mineral-depleted soils — for example, potassium deficiency — it was better management to allow the herd to deposit urine and faeces in that paddock rather than graze them and take them out before they camped.

“If they deposit their urine and faeces in another place, you’ve lost that opportunity to naturally replenish the soil,” he said.