We are all aware of the increasing economic difficulties on farm at the moment – after all – I have been harping and bleating away for months now about this very subject – the key being to reduce costs by maximizing home grown forage. Grazed grass is the cheapest source of feed for all livestock farms and any extension of the grazing season will be absolutely critical in helping to maintain profitability. All livestock farmers would agree that they are always tight for grass early in the season, with dairy farmers being particularly keen to get the cows out as early as practically possible in order to try and reduce the need for bought in feeds while sheep farmers are desperate for every blade of grass that they can get their hands on as, in all probability, their stocking rates should be increasing by several fold during that early spring period.

In a recent Forage Diary, I did mention that Pearce Seeds – an agronomy company that are based near Sherborne in Dorset – had aquired their own farm in the Blackmore Vale which was being used exclusively for trialling various farm crops, one such trial being the evaluation of grazing performances on a new range of New Zealand bred ryegrasses – this trial being run alongside two individual commercial farms where grazing performances were also being monitored and, to say the very least, the results, although still in the early stages, are quite spectacular.

European bred perennial and Italian ryegrass start to grow in the spring when the soil temperatures have reached 7 – 8 degrees C and although these New Zealand bred cultivars would start their growth at or around the same time, it is the speed of growth and indeed re-growth, that is quite dramatic – this very early acceleration in early vigour permitting turnout, on average, at least three weeks earlier than a conventional mixture. The speed of re-growth has been observed on all plots and even in a cold spring, the second grazing commenced 14 – 15 days after being unstocked as opposed to 21 days with the traditional mixture. It was also observed that these grasses always grew that little bit later than the conventional grasses – in fact, up to three weeks later – thus extending the grazing season by six weeks.

The breeder in question is P G G Wrightsons Seeds Ltd. who is the largest breeder in New Zealand. They have been working alongside New Zealand farmers for years now with the sole objective of improving the performance of grasses, in particular grazing characteristics, the success of this programme enabling Pearce Seeds to fully monitor the results of at least four different cultivars – three of which now feature in the two mixtures that they are offering livestock farmers for planting this spring or this coming autumn – one being a medium term grazing mixture with clover with a suggested sowing rate of 14 kgs per acre – the other being without clover but still sown at 14 kgs per acre.

Good grazing management is essential in order to fully maximize the potential of these New Zealand bred cultivars with field selection being quite critical. Choose your more dryer fields in order to allow earlier spring turnout and also fields that are reasonably close to the parlour or housing facilities. Visit areas on a regular basis so that pasture growth can be closely monitored thus enabling fairly instant action should grass growth start to get ahead of the stock. It is recommended that a maximum of 20 per cent of your grazing land should be down to these mixtures at any one time.

In addition to the extremely aggressive early vigour characteristics of these newly bred grasses, other aspects would also be recorded such as grazing preferences, disease resistance, dry matter yields and winter hardiness and on the most recent plant count, there was no evidence at all of any winter kill – despite one of the coldest winters that we have experienced for some time.

Over the years, I have written many in-depth reports on various types of forage ranging from forage maize to fodder beet, catch crops, grass etc, but, in all honesty, I cannot remember writing anything specific about forage rye – until now that is.

Bonfire is a new variety of forage rye which Pearce Seeds have been looking at for a while now and because they have been so encouraged with its overall results, they are growing a seed crop this year which will be available for both the conventional and organic grower for sowing this autumn.

Bred by German plant breeder DSV, Bonfire has demonstrated extreme early vigour characteristics – so much so that in Pearce Seeds’ trials, and after being unstocked on February 7 this year following its initial grazing, it was necessary to re-introduce the sheep once again only a fortnight later – this feature allowing dairy farmers the opportunity to turn the cows out much earlier then the ‘norm’ – the benefits being savings on expensive bought in feeds and also the reduced feeding of grass silage – something that could prove quite invaluable during the summer as this silage might be needed to supplement grass.

Sheep farmers who would be well into lambing by the end of January would find this early onset of grazing rye invaluable, to say the very least.

Bonfire is a winter catch crop and is suitable for both feeding and biomass production. It can be sown from September onwards with its speed of germination and establishment meaning that it could be sown later than other varieties which could prove to be useful in late or wet autumns. It has good dry matter yields but the key behind this variety is that it starts to grow much earlier and produces much more during late January, February and March and would be an ideal crop to grow between successive maize crops.