Autumn grass

Published 15 November 13

Key messages

  • Keep monitoring – high soil and air temperatures meant grass growth remained strong throughout October
  • The warm autumn means a real risk of carrying too much cover going into the winter
  • Don’t over winter with covers above 3,000kg DM/ha
  • Graze to reduce covers – dry cows, youngstock, even sheep if properly managed!

This autumn’s warm temperatures means that, for many, there is more grass around than was planned for, which could have an impact on the quality of grass in the spring.

Piers Badnell, DairyCo technical extension officer, talks about what to do if you find yourself with an excess of grass, this time of year.

The soil temperature on the edge of Bodmin Moor was 16.5°C last week, and while this is in Cornwall, it does indicate how warm soil temperatures have been, and still are, in many places.

With soil temperature being the biggest factor affecting grass growth rates many farmers are finding they are still experiencing good grass growth on top of good covers. Combine this with a reduction in demand as less stock is out, and there is a real risk for many of too much cover going into the winter.

Aim not to carry more than 3,000kg DM/ha through the winter as higher covers can have a real impact on quality next year, for both grazing and silage ground. Too much cover means increased stem on the grass plant, more dead and dying lower leaves, and as a result poorer quality grass next spring.

This decaying area also provides perfect conditions for moulds and “bad bacteria”, which will present next year at silaging, with a resultant challenge threat to silage fermentation.

If you find yourself with excess grass you need to look at reducing covers. The way to do this now and into the winter is by grazing with some form of stock, be it dry cows, heifers  and even, dare I say it sheep in some circumstances!

If you do use sheep make sure they are not around too long, as this will have a big impact on early season growth.  With early season growth being very profitable plan carefully and work around your individual circumstances when you bring sheep onto your grassland.

Autumn grass, if well managed, is good quality at around 12ME. However, DM values will be lower due to heavier dews, shorter, cooler days and higher levels of rainfall.

If we have suitable conditions come December and January, and you are still carrying too much cover, it is worth thinking about putting low yielders out for a spell or two of a maximum of four to five hours at a time to lower covers. But this is a very farm and weather specific decision .


Keith Davies, who milks both a spring and autumn calving herd in Gloucestershire, explains what they have done at Lydney Park this autumn.

“This year is a most peculiar year as there is far more grass around than anyone planned for,” says Keith. “It is all about setting yourself up for next spring now. It is imperative that everything has been grazed at least once since the end of September, so you know you have quality grass going into the winter.

“We would not take anything through the winter that had grown back to above 2650kg. Paddocks above this level would be grazed again. With autumn calved cows I would not have them grazing covers much above 2,750kg, as it is hard work for them to get it down to a 1500kg residual, and it will reduce intakes. Higher covers should be fed to dry cows or youngstock.

“In a normal year with autumn calvers I would have started the last round on the first of October, and gone around the farm in five to six weeks. This would give a slightly higher flatter wedge coming out of the winter but would allow more cows to go out earlier in the spring/late winter.

“This usually results in earlier housing than some spring calving herds, but it will allow an earlier turn out in the spring. For me, one of the great benefits of an autumn calving herd is that you are in complete control of your spring stocking rate, as everything has already calved. Whereas spring calvers have to wait for the cows to calve, as we do not want to be feeding high quality milking cow food (spring grass) to our dry cows.”