Agronomy Advice
February 22, 2023

Walking the Grazing Block

Farmers do a lot of walking, but there’s no better way of keeping in touch with what’s going on in your paddocks than taking a walk through them.

farmer walking through the fields checking his crops
farmer walking through the fields checking his crops

This is more than just a walk, it’s an information gathering process designed to support good grassland management. The collected intelligence can be used to rectify issues quickly, make informed decisions and keep an eye on grazing cattle.

What to look for in Winter (December, January and February)

The main focus during winter is ground conditions and getting ready for action in the Spring months. There’s three things you’ll be looking out for as you walk through your fields:

  1. Condition of the fields. Whilst Autumn tends to be a good time for reseeding, you will also want to check how your paddocks have recovered as you come to the end of winter. If there are areas of your fields that saw a lot of animal traffic and haven’t recovered well, you may choose reseed areas of your fields to increase productivity in the spring.
  2. Soil saturation. As we head into February, you’ll be keeping a close eye on how well your fields start to dry out. Putting heavy machinery out too soon on waterlogged land will only result in compacting soil and damaging growth potential.
  3. Soil temperature. As we emerge from the winter cold, soil temperatures will start to warm through. Grass tends to start growing once temperatures reach 5 - 6°C, at this level, spring growth will start.

To get grass growth off to the best start, providing a fresh source of nitrogen when it needs it most is crucial, but it’s important that we don’t go on the land too soon in case we damage the soil in the process. It’s a precise balance which is easiest struck when you walk paddocks to inform your choice.

The other advantage of applying nitrogen at the right time is that you minimise losses to the atmosphere and water courses, resulting in a greener and more efficient way to farm.

What to look for in Spring (March, April and May)

Spring is a crucial time for grass growth, walking your fields throughout this season is essential.

Monitoring grass growth is your focus throughout this season and as things change so quickly we would recommend that you increase your grazing platform walks to twice per week. This is particularly important for farmers managing grazing herds. How well you manage your swords throughout this period will dictate growth success across the whole growing season. The crucial decision is when to move animals on to graze the next paddock. A good guide is to keep post grazing residuals down to 4 cm. This should promote optimum grass growth and maintain grass quality.

Of course, you could also see grass growth outstrip need. In these scenarios, savvy farmers will look to take a cutting for silage, replenishing winter silage stocks whilst maintaining good grass levels to maximise ongoing grass growth. But as ever, these decisions are further complicated by a multitude of other factors such as weather. British weather can be unpredictable and if you’ve gone through a warm start to spring and see an excess of grass growth it may seem like a good idea to cut, but if you’re heading into an extreme weather event (we’ve seen cold snaps as late as May in recent years) you may want to hold off cutting to take account of growth slowing up.

Farmers who are cutting for silage will most likely have a good plan of when they will be going out for their first, second and third cuts, but walking silage fields will still be valuable as you may need to flex these timings to suit actual grass growth or the impact of weather conditions, not forgetting to plan in subsequent fertiliser spreading to replace the nutrients taken off in that cut. Starting from a plan is great, but it’s crucial we build flexibility in it to address the reality of farming and the factors that can impact grass growth.

What to look for in Summer (June, July and August)

In many ways, you’re looking for the same things in your paddocks and fields as you were throughout spring - it’s all about monitoring grass cover, herd rotation and fertilisation. As in Spring, the main focus will be on maintaining grass quality. You should be concerned with maximising high quality swards which will be more digestible and have more leaf. Lower quality swards will have more stem than leaf and are therefore less digestible. This could mean a 5% drop in milk solids for a dairy farmer, so it’s worth staying on top of.

But there will be additional things to look out for as the season progresses such as extreme weather events. Summer 2022 was a record-breaking hot summer and it’s likely, due to climate change, that hotter summers are here to stay, so grassland farmers will quickly need to come up with strategies on how to manage grassland in drought conditions. Yara would recommend a measured approach by reducing grass allocation per cow to protect grass growth and supplement with silage and concentrate feeds. In this way when you do get rain, paddocks will recover more quickly. To do this successfully, you’ll need to keep an eye on your grass levels, so walking the grazing block regularly is crucial

What to look for in Autumn (September, October and November)

As we go into Autumn we’ll see great variety in grass growth depending upon multiple factors and you’ll need to keep an eye on grass cover and review field conditions to plan for the next growing season. The focus for this season is:

  1. Extended grazing. In an effort to minimise costs associated with housing animals, many farmers are extending grazing as far into this season as possible. As a result farmers will need to keep an eye on grass cover, building grass covers from August onwards in a bid to extend autumn grazing and set the grazing platform up for the spring.
  2. Reseeding. Looking back at past productivity data and combining this with what you see as you walk through your fields, you may choose to reseed the odd field to see better productivity in the spring.
  3. Soil analysis. Undertaking soil analysis in late Autumn is a good idea to understand what nutrients need replenishing and whether you need to address pH level with liming. This information will help you formulate a plan for the Spring to achieve bumper grass growth.

With all the technology available to farmers today it can be easy to overlook some of the more simple tools and practices, but any successful grassland farmer will tell you that without getting out into your fields to see what is actually growing is key, you’ll not have the information you need to make the right decisions at the right time. Walking your farm remains an invaluable practice to every farmer and costs nothing but time.