I know that for years, I have been bleating away about grassland and trying to highlight its importance to every stock farmer in the land and the need to both treat and manage it as a crop.

We all recognise that there is nothing quite like spring grass and I believe that we all appreciate the yields and quality that are on offer from properly managed grass during those spring months – right up to and including June I would suggest, with the top two per cent of dairy herds achieving maintenance plus 20 litres (or more) in the perfect case scenario of top quality grass leys, good weather and excellent management. The more realistic cases would probably be yielding around M + 12-15 litres during May and June, dropping to M + 5 during July and August and M (+ maybe just 1 litre if you’re lucky) during September and it is those three months of summer and early autumn that I really do want you to concentrate your minds on now please – assuming of course that you don’t want your yields and herd condition to suffer.

We are all aware that the yield potential of both second and third cut silage is significantly below that of the first cut and the ME and D Values will drop like a stone, but, and all too often, the expectations of milk and meat production from summer grass is virtually always too high and consequently yields and cow condition – especially within those herds of 7,000 litres or more – will inevitably suffer. If we get a wet summer, you’ll have bags of grass with poor quality but will struggle to utilize everything as you won’t be able to get the cows out there all the time due to poaching. Alternatively, should we experience a dry summer such as 2009 and 2010, grass growth will be restricted and you’ll have to open up the silage clamps and end up exposing yourself to a considerable feeding risk during next winter.

Either way, if you really do want to avoid nasty surprises with summer milk yields, cow condition and next winters feeding policy, you ought to be considering the options available to you – something that you can plant during April and will be ready from July onwards. Summer grass alone just will not be able to provide sufficient dry matter and energy for your cows needs, so here are just a few ideas on what you can grow that will contribute a significant amount during those important few months.

This crop can be sown in April and grazed from the end of July onwards with dry matter yields of up to 10 tonnes/Ha at 16 per cent dry matter content. Kale is also a high quality feed with crude protein levels at 17 per cent, 68 D Value and ME’s up to 11.

Flea beetle attack represents the biggest threat during its early stage so purchasing seed with a suitable treatment and monitoring is essential. Clubroot is the main disease threat but there are varieties on the market that offer a degree of clubroot resistance with Grampian being one of the newest varieties available and ideal for late summer and early autumn use.

Stubble Turnips:
This is a very popular and extremely versatile catch crop which can be grazed as early as 12 weeks from sowing, so a mid-late April planting would enable you to commence grazing from mid July onwards. Dry matter yields can be up to four tonnes/Ha @ 9 per cent dry matter content with crude protein levels of up to 18 per cent. With protein mainly being found in the leaves, varieties such as Rondo and Tyfon would be the ideal choice for summer grazing with Tyfon offering re-growth potential.

Stubble Turnips can be susceptible to bolting, so early plantings in frost prone areas should be avoided.

Forage Rape:
Sown from May onwards, these new rape/kale hybrids can be ready for grazing as early as 13-15 weeks from sowing and dry matter yields can be up to 3.5 tonnes/Ha @ 14 per cent dry matter content. Crude protein levels are quite exceptional at 20 per cent with 65 D Value and ME’s up to 11. The variety Interval has quite outstanding features in yield potential, disease resistance and palatability.

Rape is ideal for both cattle and sheep, but, like all brassica crops, introduce gradually over a two week period.

These are three very realistic options on what you can plant in April in order to seriously reduce your exposure to poor animal performance during the summer and early autumn but the one other action point that must be taken is an invitation to your nutritionist to pay you a visit in late June or early July where there will then be a golden opportunity to walk through and inspect all your summer grazing crops and then fine tune your summer diet exactly to your specific requirements – an exercise that the more professional feeding companies should already be encouraging.

With the main maize drilling time being only one month away, most maize growers will already be planning their field and management strategy for this extremely important high energy feed. Some have already started their field work on some of the drier land just in case we have another early spring such as last year. There are, however, a number of farmers out there who, for varying reasons, are as yet a little undecided as to whether to grow the crop at all – some being reluctant due to a poor performance last year whilst others would like to try the crop but are somewhat nervous due the more marginal location of their farm.

I fully understand the concerns felt by those of you who feel that they are in either of these two categories but in so-doing, I just wonder whether it might be a good idea to ask you to do a little ‘’investigation’’ of your own – my following comments being mainly directed at the marginal grower. Despite a quite wonderful start, last year did not turn out to be quite so wonderful after all with a cool wettish summer delaying maturity and probably resulted in dry matter and starch levels being lower than anticipated – although at 30 per cent – still more than acceptable on marginal land. We also experienced a bit of eyespot on the more exposed sites.

I fully accept that maize is an expensive crop to grow but provided that you do not try and cut corners, you can still expect yields of 4.5 – 5.0 tonnes of dry matter per acre with starch levels approaching 30 per cent - so long as you ‘follow the rules.’ Once your agronomist has confirmed which fields to use, appropriate preparatory work prior to drilling is absolutely essential in order to create a good seedbed. Sub soiling every three years is a must and all organic manures should be incorporated into the seedbed as soon as possible in order to reduce leaching. Regular soil analysis will reveal any deficiencies that need rectifying with phosphate placement alongside the seed always in my opinion, being justified – your options being either MAP or DAP – depending on commercial availability.

There are products on the market that can be applied as foliar feeds should your crop be lacking in trace elements, but your agronomist will advise accordingly.

Finally, your varietal choice will play a significant role toward the end result i.e. yield and quality. For marginal sites, there are no ‘iffs and buts’ about it – you must choose a very early variety but, in addition to yield, earliness and quality, a variety that has agronomic characteristics that will help you with your overall plan e.g. good early vigour, good standing power and high megajoule potential.

An expensive crop to grow – yes. A high energy, high quality and worthwhile crop to grow – certainly.

If you grow the crop well and don’t take liberties, you’ll end up with a good crop at harvest and you’ll probably grow it again next year – without any prompting from me.