THERE are 16 million farmable or manageable acres of grassland in the UK - a figure that should highlight to everyone, the importance that this crop represents to today's livestock farmers.

I say should' - but I am afraid that it just does not seem to register as an important crop' for the vast majority and the longer they continue to ignore the true potential of grass, the more their margins will continue to be eroded.

We are all fully aware that margins have been under attack for some years now and all too often the message coming back seems to indicate that in order to try and offset this profit erosion, farmers are trying to save money, when surely the answer is to try and become more efficient and profitable. Some genuine savings can be successfully made, but throwing the cheque book away' is not the real answer - with grassland management sticking out like a sore thumb as being a classic example as to why you should be investing in your grass rather than try and cut corners.

Over the past 25 years, permanent pasture - i.e. grassland of 5 years and above, has increased from 12.5 million acres to 14.7 million acres, but unfortunately, this increase has been at the expense of temporary grassland which has seen a drop from 4.5 to 3.3 million acres. Why? Farmers quickly identified re-seeding as something that they could cut back on and ultimately save money, but in reality, the money saved has been multiplied several fold in losses by greatly reduced yields of dry matter and similar reductions in both milk and meat production.

As a sward gets older, it's efficiency drops away due to a corresponding drop in ryegrass content. Usually, a first year ley will contain about 85 per cent of the sown species, but this can drop to as low as 50 per cent by year five and it is not uncommon for older swards to contain as little as 30 per cent of productive grasses.

As the percentage of sown species drops off, nature fills in the gaps with a combination of broad leaved weeds and weed grasses such as annual meadow grass, rough and smooth stalked meadow grass, Yorkshire Fog etc., but the dry matter potential and energy levels of these grasses are much lower than ryegrass. Farmers save' money by cutting back on re-seeding but continue to apply the same amount of fertiliser as they would have done to a new ley. Saving money' on re-seeding and then literally throwing money away by applying fertiliser to inefficient grassland just does not make sense. But you do it! How can you honestly justify applying nitrogen costing £350 tonne (assuming that you can get it!) to grassland that has a huge weed content and yields, at best, maybe 30 per cent - 40 per cent of what a newly re-seeded ley would achieve? In a nutshell, older pastures are much less productive, have lower mega joule production, much poorer quality and a greatly reduced level of fertiliser utilisation. But here's the rub - I'm not telling you anything new! You are all well aware of these arguments in favour of re-seeding, but in today's economic climate where the need for farmers to produce even more low cost, top quality home grown forage is absolutely paramount for survival, you cannot continue to ignore the potential that grass has to offer every livestock farmer!

During the spring, I was invited to attend a couple of farmer meetings that were hosted by ACT - the theme of which being Improve Your Grassland and Significantly Improve Your Profits' and I think it is fair to say that every farmer who attended those meetings fully accepted that there was still a long way to go yet before they even started to get close to getting full potential from their grassland. It was widely accepted that by improving grassland must also improve profitability and that overall, farmers must become much more realistic when faced with pastures that are under performing - they must be re-seeded! If you harvest poor grass and feed poor silage, then you cannot expect anything other than poor production.

The audience was asked why farmers are so reluctant to re-seed, with some arguing that the timing was wrong, that they could not afford to lose a field until next spring, but the general consensus of opinion was cost - the perception of re-seeding costs were too high! So how much does it cost to re-seed? The audience actually worked that out for themselves and came up with some pretty interesting figures. Between them, they came up with a figure of £278 per acre, which included all the mechanical work, fertilisers, lime at £50 per acre, herbicide and seed at £40 per acre - there was nothing left out! The audiences also decided what the likely levels of improvements would be from a new re-seed as opposed to a much older ley, with those improvements then translated into genuine and realistic figures for increased milk production per acre or liveweight gains per acre.

Assuming a very conservative increase in dry matter yield of 25 per cent and just a modest improvement in ME from 10.5 to 11.0, most dairy farmers could see an increase in milk yield to as much as 5500 litres which, at 25 ppl, would equate to £1375 per acre and allowing for the re-seeding costs, the minimum increase that they would likely to see would be £1000 per acre - and that's just the first year - there would be no re-seeding costs to take out for years 2- 6.

The main speaker for those evenings was Neil Matson - ACT's Grass Products Manager - and it was encouraging to see that his enthusiasm for grass as a crop and it's real potential was met with equal enthusiasm from his audiences. Everyone agreed that the evenings could be summed up by our end of school term reports 'Must Do Better".

In concluding, Neil highlighted the one commercial of the evening and pointed out that the ACT range of grass seeds which are marketed as ACTion seeds, has recently been revamped and the resultant mixtures offers, what he believes, to be the most comprehensive range on the market today, citing examples of No. 59 Sweet Grazer - a 14kg all Tetraploid mixture with the option of 1 kg of white clover blend and Quality Cutter No. 57 - a long term conservation mixture which features 71per cent Tetraploids and very close heading dates, with an additional feature being the optional inclusion of ACTive 8 - a bacterial growth promoter which has resulted in numerous testimonials from farmers throughout the UK who have already tried it and seen the benefits.

'They are, quite simply the best'' said Neil 'the high sugar content of the Tetraploids mean that intakes are always high, they have a greater tolerance of droughty conditions, are regarded as being more efficient at utilising soil nitrogen due to their more fibrous root system and with good disease resistance to both crown rust and mildew - an extremely important feature for the west country - farmers are safe in the knowledge that these tailor made mixtures will really perform'' he said.

With nitrogen now costing £350 per tonne, white clover now offers you the opportunity to save over £200 per Ha. The fertilizer industry's own figures calculates that white clover can fix up to 200 kgs N' per Ha/Year and an autumn re-seed is a golden opportunity to start taking advantage of what will be up to 6 years of free nitrogen. Red Clover is also starting to make a bit of a come back and with a key player in the animal feed market openly stating that farmers really should be growing as much protein crops as possible for the foreseeable future, a three year mixture of red clover and hybrid ryegrasses is an extremely viable option. If you have any under performing grassland or you suspect a high level of weed grasses in a particular field - or both - do please call in your agronomist or grass seed supplier for an evaluation on the sward composition and if it is generally agreed that it should be re-seeded, do please go for a specialist mixture as opposed to collecting something green' off the shelf of your nearest supplier just hours before you actually drill the seed! Invest some money on it and improve your management and expertise and I can guarantee that you will get the just rewards.