Monday, November 12, 2012

Winter work on grassland will pay dividends

Some timely ideas for grassland farmers to think of doing now

A 'Think Piece' Blog:  Traditional grass management involves doing nothing over the winter months. Farmers wait until the soil warms up in the spring, when fertiliser is applied and the roller and the chain harrow get their annual outing. This Blog suggests that farmers who forget about their grassland over the winter are missing a trick. There's plenty of planning, and also when conditions are right some field work which will pay dividends in the following season.

Winter is the time for livestock farmers to plan the next season's grazing. Six months from now cattle and sheep will be getting much if not all their feed from the grass you grow, and the more pre-season preparation you can do the better grass production will result. Stock will grow, gain condition and provide financial returns on low cost grazing. 

What areas of the grazing need to be checked, and what can I do about it in the cold winter months?

Soil condition. The soil on your farm is the most vital ingredient you have, yet can be easily overlooked.

Compaction. The physical condition of soil is the most important factor, arguably more so than the composition of the sward - the numbers and variety of plants growing. Compacted grassland has a depressed level of production. The returns from fertiliser will be smaller. The susceptibility to drought greater, as the plants rooting systems are restricted to the top few inches. The plants get to less nutrient as they can't go deep. 
Reducing compaction means mechanical work, with either a spiker, or a grassland subsoiler which lifts the sward from underneath. Choosing the machine and method is made by looking at soil profiles - digging an inspection hole or two, and looking, and as importantly, feeling the soil on the sides. If the surface few inches are hard plates, but the soil underneath is easy to break but is much drier than you might expect, the compaction is clearly at the surface and breaking through this with a spiker will allow air and rainwater - carrying plant nutrients - down to the roots. If the compaction is deeper, and you find a packed layer below the surface, spiking may not be sufficient to break up the soil, and the grassland subsoiler will be needed. A far more expensive job, but still low cost in terms of grass and livestock production and fertiliser use.  

Winter soil sampling. Winter is becoming an increasingly popular time for soil sampling, particularly in the USA. One advantage is that the memory of the performance of the field in the past season is still fresh in the mind. Investigation and remedial work over the winter may well get production off to a good start in the next year. You need to bear some things in mind when soil sampling in winter. There are seasonal changes in soil test levels, so a sample taken in the winter months cannot be directly compared with one taken when the soil is warmer. Of prime concern are the test values for soil pH, P and K.  Soil pH increases in the winter as there are fewer soluble salts, CO2 concentrations and there's an absence of nitrification. P levels trend higher in winter and early spring, variation related to the pH and %age organic matter. K test values generally increase in winter months, especially when there is freezing/thawing conditions. Sandy soils have less seasonal variation. Winter soil sampling avoid distortion of results caused by recently added lime or fertiliser, which can occur in the growing season. With results coming well before you're likely to be getting machinery on the land, it also provides some time to think what is best to do. 

Fencing. The traditional work on fences is of course worth planning, otherwise you'll find turn-out arrives and the fences are still insecure. Doing it earlier rather than later can mean working only on fine days, rather than struggling to get the job completed rain or shine. Maybe you would like a post knocker, but don't like the figures which come out when pricing either your own machine or using a contractor. Home built machines are featured in Practical Farm Ideas.

Sward composition. The sward won't look at its best in winter, but it actually easier to assess how gappy it is, weed populations and so on. The Farm Ideas plant calculator makes it easy to calculate populations per acre. 

Grassland subsoiler breaks compaction, improves drainage   Vol: 14 Issue: 2 Page: 5
Plant population calculator made from alkathene hoop   Vol: 7 Issue: 1 Page: 16
Post knocker fits on front end loader - easy to make and use    Vol: 16 Issue: 2 Page: 16
Post knocker is made using weighted drum on loader/handler   Vol: 16 Issue: 4 Page: 20
Post knocker made from electric pylon   Vol: 3 Issue: 1 Page: 39 ISSUE SOLD OUT

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