Focus on getting the basics right before investing in new forage or pasture species.
This is according to Farm Systems scientist Tom Fraser, who stresses the need to get sub-division, stock water and fertility corrected before establishing new forages. He says without having the basics in place, the management, utilisation and longevity of these forages will be compromised.
“If you’ve got a problem with pasture persistence (not due to drought) then a flash new cultivar is not going to fix your problem.”
“Identify and fix the problem before investing in new cultivars.”
He says many hill country farmers are losing around 30% of their drymatter production through poor utilisation. Improving this through fencing and better stock water access will outweigh any production gains from new pasture species.
However, when selecting new forages or pasture species, he urged farmers to think about where and how these plants have been bred and managed in the evaluation stage.
Most of NZ’s pasture plants have been bred in Canterbury or the Manawatu, under irrigation, in high fertility soils and managed under rotational grazing regimes.
“We have a lot of plants that are ideal for dairy farms and we take these plants to areas of poor fertility, in dryland situations under set-stocking management regimes and wonder why they don’t perform.”
In times of stress, feed supply priorities also need to be determined when considering forage options.
Short of feed now
Nitrogen (N) can be a useful for immediately filling feed deficits, giving a response of 10-15kgDM/kgN.
Mid to late spring (Days 60-100 of lactation)
Farmers looking to increase feed production in mid to late spring – or days 60-100 of lactation – need to spray out or cultivate designated paddocks early and leave them in fallow for as long as possible.
Fraser says it can be a difficult decision to take an area out of production when feed supply is already short, but typically selected paddocks are poor producing anyway and if there is a good rain then the remaining paddocks will produce more than expected.
Fallow has been used for centuries as a way to preserve soil moisture.
Fraser advocates its use, and says it’s amazing how much moisture will build up in fallowed land.
The fallow period might be short – but even a month’s fallow will provide a good bank of moisture for seed germination and establishment.
Fraser says if plants struggle to establish, they will continue to struggle for six months. If vigorous at establishment, young plants will have the ability to find soil moisture.
Fallow can be spray or cultivation, but where the paddock is cultivated, it should be worked as early as possible in spring, rolled down and left.
“We need to get away from this mind-set of having all paddocks performing all the time.”
Typically, dryland pastures grow very little feed from November until March, so little is lost by having paddocks in fallow.
Instead the fallow period will ensure a good pasture or forage strike in autumn.
While some forages have the ability to harvest more moisture from within the soil profile than others (e.g lucerne), no forages will grow without water. When farmers are considering long-term perennial type pastures or forages, they need to try and build some resilience into their systems with plants that are able to survive in dry periods and respond quickly when moisture does become available.
Farmers nervous about taking any paddocks out of production entirely, could consider chemical topping as a tool to lift quality production in run-out pasture paddocks.
Fraser suggests identifying a paddock with good legume content and spraying out the grass “but do it seriously”.
This means a high rate (up to 350ml) of glysophate which may kill the grass but will allow the clover to flourish.
Fraser says this spray treatment needs to be done before grass and weeds set-seed from early October.
Quality or quantity
When considering forage options, farmers need to decide which the priority is; quality or quantity.
This will depend on what a farmer is looking for from a particularly paddock and what class of stock the feed is intended for.
For example, if the requirement is for a good bulk of feed in December then green feed oats might be the best option.
“Set priorities and identify what forages you want.”
Irrespective of whether a paddock has been sprayed or cultivated, the most critical factor in crop establishment is a fine, firm, moist, weed-free seedbed.
At drilling, most pasture and forage seeds need to be within that top 20mm of soil. They don’t have enough energy to emerge from deeper within the soil profile.
Farmers should expect the same results from direct drilling and conventional cultivation.
Fraser says direct drilling should not be used a cost-cutting measure, and requires the same attentional to detail as conventional cultivation methods.
He cautions against cultivating just before drilling as this will result in moisture loss, instead any weeds should be sprayed out before the paddock is drilled.
Fraser says growing any forage or crop will cost money, so farmers should not risk crop failure by buying cheap seed.
Every good line of seed should have a seed certification document which states the purity and germination percentage of that seed.
Uncertified seed, that for example contains 2-3% weed seed and has a germination of 60% could, at a sowing rate of 20kg ryegrass and 3kg legume, mean sowing 15-20 weeds/m2.
“And you’ve paid for them.”
Certified seed has a quality guarantee – and the certificate costs the buyer nothing – it’s just a matter of asking for it when buying seed.
Pasture seed options
When considering ryegrass cultivars, the first decision is whether a diploid or tetraploid is required to meet management requirements.
Tetraploids tend to be slighter higher quality with better winter growth, but they don’t do well under set-stocking.
“If you’re going to knock the hell out of it don’t sow a tetraploid,” says Fraser.
Diploids are better suited to typical dryland, hill country sheep and beef farms.
Other factors to consider when selecting cultivars are endophyte and flowering dates (around a month’s difference between early and late flowering).
There are tools to help farmers select the best cultivar for their situation, these include Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Forage Master and DairyNZ’s Forage Value Index, but Fraser believes building a relationship with a seed rep to be most useful in helping get the right cultivars and mixes for individual requirements.