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I HAVE been writing the Forage Diary since 2004, and if there has been one crop that I have been continually harping on about from day one, it has to be grass.

Every livestock farmer in the country grows it yet if the question was put to them ‘’how would you describe your grassland efficiency in percentage terms?’’ – I wonder just what the answer would be. I have a pretty shrewd idea what it should be, but I wonder whether you the farmer, me and virtually everyone else who has any input whatsoever on grassland management are singing from the same hymn sheet!! Let me put it this way. Is there anyone out there who believes that their grassland management is at maximum efficiency?? If you’ve answered ‘’Yes’’ to that question, then I can only assume that you believe that all politicians tell the truth, tooth fairies abound in your back garden and that pigs really do fly.

Whilst it is fair to point out that grassland management with some farmers is better than others, no-one gets anywhere near 100% efficiency – with probably about 70% being about the average. So you see, everyone can, and must, do better. Think school reports.

Why must you do better? Grassland management and efficiency are directly linked to profitability. If you grow good quality grass and lots of it, then your reliance on the feed compounders become less, other bought in feeds are reduced, your overall purchases are less and your net profitability is increased. Surely, there cannot be anyone out there who would disagree with that statement!! Now a touch of reality. Last summer was quite wet and consequently grass yields were high, but quality, in the main, was on the poor side. Opportunities arose during the summer and autumn where these under performing swards could have been re-seeded, but did you heed all the advice you were given? Did you heck. In fact the overall grass re-seed market dropped last year. A wet summer was followed by an extremely tough winter where a lot of good, established grassland was killed off resulting in a lot of poor, under performing swards being expected to provide good spring grazing and forage for next winter. What’s happened? We have experienced a dry spring where old pastures just have not performed and already, BBC news teams are reporting that some farmers have already resorted to feeding first cut silage to their animals and increased their usage of bought in feeds. Just what does it take for some of you to really listen and do something about these really poor swards – they have to be re-seeded – now – this autumn – or else you will be continually eroding any profit margin that had been budgeted for.

Please stop treating your grassland as the poor relation and manage it as it should be – a crop!! It’s not just me who has great concerns over the general apathy over grassland management – it’s the whole seed industry (biased you may say) but, most importantly, it’s the agronomy companies that are continually reporting uphill struggles with farmers attitudes with grassland and how they are trying to remedy such a situation.

One such company who is extremely active within the grass market with trials, advice and sales – in that order – is Pearce Seeds Ltd. They were started by the late Mike Pearce in 1967, who offered a grass mixing service to the local farming community and working on the ethos of service, this company has built up a reputation that is second to none. They are based near Sherborne in Dorset and cover most of the west country with a team of agronomists, who work with farmers to ensure the correct soil pH and fertility as well as controlling grassland pests and weeds. Their agronomic advice is always offered on personal experiences of their on-going trials work involving crops such as cereals, maize, gamecover crops and, most significantly for the benefit of this article – grass.

Pearce Seeds are members of BSPB (British Society of Plant Breeders) and pay the levy for the Herbage Varieties Guide that is run by NIAB. They work closely with all the leading N. European plant breeders and, in so doing, they are able to purchase, as straights, the best material possible. They simply buy the best – from the best. They have their own grass mixing plant at Rosedown where they are able to do custom mixtures – a service that is seemingly irksome to most companies with similar facilities, but in the case of Pearce Seeds, a service that they actively encourage. Their team of agronomists will recommend a mixture that will suit individual farms and fields – not pull a recommendation from a general leaflet where something is expected to be all things to all men!! Custom made mixtures will meet the wide variations required due to proposed management, yield and quality expectations, soil type, rainfall and whether or not the area is disease prone, with Director Tim Rutter explaining that a mixture from ‘off the shelf’ just cannot be expected to be the answer to everything. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we can not only fulfil every management criteria that has been requested, but we can also do it with the best material on the market. Our customers have come to depend on us to provide them with an impartial and trustworthy service on which they fully rely’’ said Mr. Rutter. “We have built our reputation on quality and service and that will never change’’ he said.

Pearce Seeds are continually looking at the performance of new cultivars of grass – yield, quality, disease resistance, winter hardiness and how they perform under commercial farming situations. They run several preferential grazing trials in the South West, with the newest ones being at Tiverton and at Bicton College. Both sites are farmed by extremely good grassland farmers who make their grass work hard and know that milk from grazed grass is key to their business profitability. The plots of intermediate and late perennial ryegrass varieties are laid out side by side with the grazing preferences of the farms dairy herd being closely monitored and recorded. This information gives the palatability of each variety during the grazing season and ensures that Pearce Seeds are constantly using the most suitable grass varieties for the local area. John Harris, an agronomist in Mid Devon runs these trial sites and is particularly keen on getting the most out of grassland. To this end he has been involved in other local trials with a New Zealand Plant Breeder and over a period of time became suitably impressed with a particular batch of cultivars that were demonstrating growth qualities far in excess of what was being experienced by our more conventional grass varieties. European bred perennial ryegrass starts to grow in the spring when the soil temperatures have reached 7 – 8 degrees C, but these New Zealand bred cultivars start growing much earlier when the soil temperature is only 4 degrees C – this difference representing as much as 3 – 4 weeks, with typical commercial farms being able to commence grazing in early March as opposed to April. Furthermore, the ability to sustain growth in much lower soil temperatures can extend the grazing season even further into late autumn, with John Harris explaining that a mixture made up with these New Zealand bred cultivars would be invaluable to those farmers seeking early grazing such as sheep farmers where stocking rates could literally treble during February and dairy farmers with free draining grazing land who could quite realistically turn out in late February or early March.

“Grassland is the most important crop for our livestock farmers’’ said John “and the work we put in with trials, agronomy, advice and recommendations for our customers fully endorses this.’’