Adapting farming practices in response to extreme weather events is now very much part of every farmer’s job description, according to the farmer-funded research and innovation body, AgriSearch.

“Recent Met Office data has shown long-term trends towards warmer and more extreme weather events in the UK, with annual average temperatures rising since the 1980’s. The 2018 grazing season was a tale of two halves for Northern Irish farmers, with the late wet Spring and Summer drought conditions impacting on forage availability, yields and quality of crops and milk production,” said Jason Rankin, General Manager of AgriSearch who organised GrassCheck dairy walks in conjunction with AFBI on two farms this summer.  The walks on Henry Stewart’s farm at Stewartstown and Andrew Dale’s farm in Limavady demonstrated just how different the 2018 grazing season was on farms across the province due to the impact of the weather, according to Agrisearch.

“The 2018 grazing season was a tale of two halves for Northern Irish farmers, with the late wet Spring and Summer drought conditions impacting on forage availability, yields and quality of crops and milk production. Grasscheck is helping farmers make real improvements and manage the challenging weather conditions we are now facing,” continued Mr Rankin.

Henry Stewart speaking at the GrassCheck farm walk held on his farm in August

This year, Henry Stewart’s farm was in drought conditions for most of June and July while Andrew’s farm had one of its best summers in 20 years. Initial GrassCheck on-farm data for 2018 shows a two to three tonne variation in total dry matter yield between Eastern and Western farms, with the Summer drought having a big impact on total annual grass yields in East. In addition, grass growth recorded on plots at Hillsborough and Greenmount was approximately 20% lower than 10-year average.

The walks demonstrate how weather dictates the entire farming policy. “We are not in Co Cork or the south of England. So, going down the road of calving the cows exclusively in the spring months was never going to be an option. However, we have always known that making better use of grazed grass had to be a priority for the business,” said Henry Stewart.

Before committing to GrassCheck Henry was measuring grass dry matters by physically harvesting grass within quadrants. Each was half a metre by half a metre in size. Now he uses a plate meter and his involvement with the GrassCheck project  has led to an improvement in milk from forage yields.

He has also managed to reduce reliance on concentrates, without any reduction in yields and  make better use of grazed grass throughout the growing season, with the ability to graze a proportion of the herd until the end of November this year.

Andrew Dale speaking at the GrassCheck farm walk held at his farm near Limavady in August

Andrew Dale also confirmed that GrassCheck accurately measures the grass growth achieved on the farm and how this can vary on a day-to-day basis. Since maximising the quality of the grass available to the cows is crucial this is the way to achieve optimal levels of performance from the herd.

 Andrew’s involvement with GrassCheck project for the past two years has allowed him to assess the performance of each paddock. The next step is to regularly soil test the entire farm with an emphasis on those poorer performing paddocks in order to spread lime, re-seed, drain and fertilise accordingly. 

Grasscheck bulletins will resume in March 2019