Forage for Knowledge end of year review – 2023

Tuesday, 7 November 2023

As we draw Forage for Knowledge to a close on another grazing season, it's time for us to reflect on the year's successes and challenges. 

For many, the heart of their operations lies in the growth and quality of their grass. Whether you're a livestock farmer or a dairy farmer, understanding the intricacies of grass growth and quality is crucial for a thriving agricultural enterprise.

In this end-of-season review, we'll delve into the factors that have influenced grass growth and quality in the UK and offer insights for optimising your practices in the coming year. 

One of the defining factors in the UK's agricultural landscape is the unpredictable weather. The 2023 season was no exception, with variable weather patterns affecting grass growth.

Farmers across the country faced challenges because of wetter-than-average conditions in some regions and drought-like conditions in others.

These variations influenced the timing and vigour of grass growth, making it essential for farmers to stay vigilant and adapt their management practices to mitigate weather-related challenges. 

The season started with higher-than-average grass growth and then followed last year’s trend through to mid-May.

Grass growth peaked at 101 kg DM/ha/day, with DM% averaged 17.9, CP% averaged 18.7 and ME was 12 MJ. This was followed by a decline over four weeks to 42 kg DM/ha; during that same period, grass quality started to drop as DM% inclined.

Grass growth figures did not return to the five-year average rates until July time. We then saw growth rates surpass the five-year seasonal average throughout mid-July and August.  

The average ME for September and October was back up to 12 MJ/kg of DM, and crude protein was averaging 23%, but DM% averaged 16%. This gave farms a chance to extend their grazing season, but supplementary feed was and is, in some cases, still needed to meet the DM intake requirements and balance nutrient requirements. 

So far, November’s grass growth has averaged 25 kg DM/ha, similar to last year but still higher than the five-year average. Remember, the grass grown over October and November will be most of the grass available in early spring.  

Looking back to spring 2023

The season started dry and warmer than average. Grass growth figures were looking positive going into April and May.

One of the key drivers for grass growth is sunshine hours, and in March, they were in relatively short supply, particularly in the south. The ME from the samples submitted in March averaged 12.1 MJ/kg of DM.

At the end of April, we saw an average ME of 12.2 MJ/kg DM; it then began to drop. The weekly average remained below 12 MJ/kg of DM until October. Similarly, we saw crude protein levels decline from March (24.3%) to July (21%).

It has since increased each month, reaching 24.4% at the start of November. This may have been related to the reduced fertiliser usage across the grazing platform during the dry periods in the summer. 

Many areas in the southern half of the UK had more than double their average March rainfall, and only in north-west Scotland was rainfall noticeably below average.

April rainfall totals were generally closer to average; it was drier in some northern areas but rather wet in parts of the south and east. May was rather wet in a band from Devon to Norfolk, but it was a very dry month in some other areas.

Mean temperatures for March were equal to the long-term average, and April also saw near-average temperatures generally. Most of May was warmer than average, and the warm start to the season resulted in strong grass growth rates that only began to drop off at the end of May.  

June was relatively warm, dry and settled, but unsettled weather came in July and lasted until August. While August was something of an improvement of July, with temperature, rainfall and sunshine nearer average, the weather nonetheless remained mixed.

August brought unseasonably wet and windy weather. While the rainfall pattern was variable, for many areas, this was a rather wet summer overall and recorded as one of the UK’s top ten wettest summers.  

Reflect and review how your paddocks performed this season

As the end of the season approaches, now is the time to take stock of your grass growth and quality.

The 2023 season, like any other, presented its unique challenges and opportunities.

By reflecting on the influence of weather, grass species, soil health, grazing management and biodiversity, you can make informed decisions to improve the productivity and sustainability of their operations in the seasons to come.

Your commitment to optimising grass growth and quality is an investment in the future success of your farm and the broader agricultural community. 

Grass species and varieties play a significant role in determining grass growth and quality. Different grass types offer unique advantages and disadvantages, depending on your specific farming goals.

For instance, perennial ryegrass is known for its rapid regrowth and high-quality forage, making it a popular choice, while meadow fescue and timothy grass are valued for their persistence and drought resistance.

Reflecting on the performance of grass species on your farm this season can help you make informed decisions for the next. 

Grass quality is closely tied to soil health and fertility. Soil testing and analysis should be a regular practice on every farm to ensure the right nutrients are available for optimal grass growth.

The end of the season is an excellent time to review soil test results and consider amendments or adjustments in your nutrient management plan for the upcoming season. Balanced soil fertility is essential for maximising grass quality and productivity. 

Effective grazing management is a cornerstone of grass growth and quality. Season-long, rotational and adaptive grazing systems all have their place in different farming systems.

Reflect on the grazing strategies you employed this season and assess their impact on grass health. Adjustments in stocking rates, grazing periods and paddock sizes may be necessary to achieve better results in the next season. 

Finally, we would like to thank the contributing farmers who submit samples for analysis and submit their grass measurements weekly.

Their commitment enables us to provide our levy payers with the latest regional grass growth and quality figures every week. The value and robustness of this data are strengthened with each contributor’s involvement.

This year, we had over 9,000 subscribers: a mixture of dairy, beef and sheep farmers, consultants, researchers and industry members. We hope the information, resource and data provided has helped you capitalise on the cheapest feedstuff available on the farm and drive profitability and sustainable businesses. 

Visit AHDB Grass for all grass-related tools, services and resources

Visit Forage for Knowledge for all previous articles, case studies and information