Everyone tells you to grow Ryegrass, yet Cocksfoot is more cost-effective, and weather tolerant, to grow than Ryegrass.

Grass is the cheapest source of energy but managing the grassland to optimise nutritional content of the grazing land, or more crucially forage, takes time and effort. Asking the right questions is the key.

First, we need to look at the basic production strategy.

Creating a plan to produce forage that has a high nutritional content needs to be created from an in-depth understanding of the available nutrients in the soil, and then correlating that information with a tissue test to confirm exactly what nutrients are available in the forage. Appropriate supplements can then be provided to ensure that stock performance is optimised.

The most crucial action in relation to soil nutrition for producing forage is to measure the nutrients in the soil that are actually ‘available’ to the plant. Rather than as in the case of the Standard Soil Test which just measures the quantity of nutrients that the soil contains.

Many nutrients are inescapably bound into the soil colloid by their interaction with the other nutrients and the fundamental soil configuration. This consequently renders them unavailable for plant utilisation without the crucial soil fungi (Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi), and significantly contributes to inferior quality forage.

Just to recap on the key nutrients tin the soil to balance, and therefore the nutrition available in the grass that is harvested.

Magnesium (Mg)

Magnesium regulates the uptake of Phosphorous; structural component of ribosomes; major constituent of chlorophyll production; and plays a crucial part in transforming sugar and starch within the plant to utilisable energy.

Magnesium is also a crucial component of nerve and muscle function in all creatures. Hence animals that are short of this nutrient tend to be hyperactive and unpredictable.

Once Magnesium has been broken down from the parent soil material over the millennia (e.g., dolomite) it is deposited in the soil solution.

The Magnesium in the soil solution can only be depleted in three ways:

  1. Absorbed by living organisms – used for productivity.
  2. Adsorbed by surrounding particles – rendered unavailable without appropriate intervention.
  3. Leached – as a result of applications of fertilisers containing sulphates and excessive use of chlorides (e.g., Muriate of Potash – MoP)

Soils that naturally contain an elevated level of magnesium are difficult to manage, because the magnesium ions naturally swell and absorb water weakening the structures that hold the soil particles together and generating an anaerobic glutinous consistency in the soil that further reduces infiltration rates and hydraulic conductivity – drainage. Conversely in a period of drought the soil readily collapses and further reduces nutrient availability.

Plants grown on high magnesium soils invariable suffer from a lack of stem strength and often collapse after inflorescence (flowering). This is due to the lack of calcium available from the soil.

To manage a high magnesium soil for productivity:

  1. Regularly incorporate organic matter which will increase the aggregate stability of the soil, while progressively slowing down the soil degradation.
  2. Measure the soil carbon to nitrogen ratio (in both the soil and organic matter) before applying manure to ensure that you are not inadvertently ‘locking up’ nutrients by applying an organic matter source that is too high in carbon for the soil to cope with without being detrimental to the forage nutrition.
  3. Incorporate calcium into the soil. Calcium helps to flocculate the clay and magnesium particles creating a greater aggregate particle size which will increase the infiltration of air and crucially allow water to drain through the soil rather than coagulating it. Calcium requirement should be based on the soil Cation Exchange Capacity, rather than just the pH.

Calcium (Ca)

 Calcium is an integral part of all cells, and the major constituent of the middle lamella which is formed during cell division.

Calcareous soils break down and create the large regions of the UK have high concentrations of limestone or chalk. In these situations, the high calcium levels will significantly benefit the grass development, but also restrict the availability of other crucial nutrients – especially potash and magnesium. Conversely, available calcium will increase the absorption and efficiency of nitrogen utilisation.

Only young roots are able to absorb calcium, and translocation will be dependent on available soil moisture.

Calcium plays a significant role in muscle contractions within animals, and a shortage will lead to cramp. In extreme cases the autonomous peristaltic function within the gut can stall, with the obvious dire consequences.

Calcium application options:
  1. If Gypsum can be accessed and incorporated this would provide the necessary calcium levels, as well as sulphate, and is cheap if locally available from plasterboard production facilities.
  2. Alternatively, regular applications of Calciprill / Calcifert [prilled limestone] can be applied in a form that can easily be spread from any fertiliser spreader and breaks down more evenly and effectively in the soil, and at a lower application rate, than ground limestone.
  3. Ensure that you use calcium (not Magnesium) limestone if you already have a soil with a high magnesium content.
  4. Please call if you need help calculating rates of Gypsum of Calciprill to apply in relation to the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) of your soil/s.

Phosphate (P)

Available phosphate stimulates root growth, and energy production, and also plays a key role in grass palatability. In the soil, phosphates are subject to rapid and complex antagonistic interactions with especially calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese, which makes phosphate relatively immobile for root recovery. But, by encouraging Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) development with aeration will help liberate phosphate.

AMF is capable of producing significant levels of the protein glomalin that is specifically designed to release phosphate from the soil for plants to utilise.

Potash (K)

Potash crucially drives and regulates the Transpiration process: the movement of dissolved nutrients in water (sap) up the plant to sites of utilisation

Potassium significantly contributes to many of the plants physiological processes, as well as regulating the plants respiration rate. Also, available potassium facilitates the synthesis and translocation of carbohydrates within the plant which ensures that the cell walls thicken correctly, and the plant remains standing.

Potassium combines with boron and calcium within the plant to allow the correct development of cell walls.

One of the most notable advantages of available potassium is that it is integral to increasing the hardiness and winter survival of young grass plants. This hardiness also confers an increase in general disease resistance for the life of the plant.

Grazing grass is inherently shorter that grass destined for winter keep. Therefore, the requirement for potash is low. This is because the potash moves the nutrients up the plant to ensure that the ear (seed head) has enough energy to promote the grasses genes. Grazing grass will function perfectly adequately on low potash levels, but care and attention must be taken to ensure that if it is to be harvested then it has access to adequate levels of potash.

What type of forage do you want to create?:

Dry hay is harvested at 12-18 per cent moisture.

  1. Always tricky to achieve with the usual vagaries of the Great British weather! But given the opportunity this will be the cheapest way to conserve grass.
  2. Optimised cutting and wilting timing will need to be prudently adhered too, with the often obligatory extended length of the wilting / turning process (due to inclement weather) precluding nutritional hay production. The longer the wilting process that is necessary automatically extends the risk of rain spoiling the wilting grass.

Haylage is harvested at 60-65 per cent moisture.

  1. Haylage is grass forage that is cut just before flowering at approximately 75 per cent moisture, wilted, and then baled when the moisture content is at 60-65 per cent. It is then stored in a sealed plastic wrapped bale.
  2. It is imperative that all air is excluded so that the natural fermentation process can take place within the bales.
  3. Assuming that harvesting and wilting process have been optimised, then it is advisable to double wrap the bales to ensure the longevity and quality of the ensiled grass.

Silage is harvested at 65-70 per cent moisture content for a clamp, and 60-70 per cent for bagging)

  1. Decide where / how the forage is to be stored and apply the moisture criteria above.
  2. Again, it is imperative that all air is excluded so that the natural fermentation process can take place. Ideally with double sheets weighed down with unusable tyres (or similar) for a clamp.
  3. If wrapping the bales, wrap each bale at least twice to ensure integrity of air exclusion.
  4. Rats and birds must also be controlled to ensure that they do not make holes in the plastic and allow air in which encourages the proliferation of crop spoiling organisms.
Approximate moisture content estimation from squeezing a handful of forage:
  • Liquid flowing freely from forage = 80 per cent+.
  • Heavy pressure required to extract any liquid = 75-80 per cent.
  • Hand moist; no liquid produced; a ball of forage retains structure = 70-75 per cent.
  • Hand moist; no liquid produced; a ball of forage deconstructs slowly = 60-70 per cent.
  • Hand moist; no liquid produced; a ball of forage rapidly falls apart = <60 per cent

Harvesting forage – optimising the timing of the cut:

When to cut

The schematic above demonstrates the difference between Dry Matter (DM or the volume of crop harvested) at various timings, and the nutritional content of the harvested grass, the D-value (digestibility related to nutrient content) at that timing.

In essence the plant wants to promote its genes by ensuring the seeds have as much nutrient as possible, so that they will ripen and survive once scattered on the soil.

Therefore, if we calculate the flowering date of the grass (dependant on the sward species – see below) and consider the 14 days before that date. Those 14 days up to flowering are when the plant contains the most nutrition for grass conservation as hay / haylage / silage.

Approximate heading (flowering) date of the major grass species:

Approximate Heading (flowering) date of the major grass species:

Average nutritional quality of Cocksfoot compared to Ryegrass:

Grass species Protein Manganese Mg/kg Copper Mg/kg Zinc  Mg/kg
Perennial Ryegrass 12 % 41.0 5.0 20
Timothy 8 % 38.0 4.6 19
Cocksfoot 12 % 105.0 7.1 23
Meadow Fescue 6 % 29.0 4.9 16

Cost-effective grazing: an Estate

A few years ago, I started work advising an Estate on how to achieve cost-effective grazing and forage production. Much of the parkland had been undisturbed for decades, and thought it was in dire need of mechanical intervention Fescue Spp., and Cocksfoot proliferated with Timothy in some fields.

Potentially an ideal pastoral environment, with appropriate intervention, and for the reintroduction of Silvopasture in many areas – implemented.

When I arrived at the Estate they had been ‘advised’ a few years earlier to plough out some fields and drill Italian Ryegrass for fodder production. The predominately Loamy Sand soil did not appreciate the abuse!

I persuaded the Estate to take a long-established field of Cocksfoot as forage (despite its protestations!) to compare with the relatively new Italian Ryegrass (Data below).

Points to note:

  1. Harvested later than ideal due to the weather. Then the baling machinery broke, and contractors were busy. Hence the abnormally high Dry Matter content.
  2. Analysis results demonstrated the similarities between the grass species, and the stock ate both with equal enthusiasm.
  3. The significant difference is that the Cocksfoot was not fertilised!
Baled silage quality comparison (Target values in brackets where appropriate)
Analysis Italian Ryegrass Cocksfoot
pH 4.9 Standard 4.2 Standard
Dry Matter % 89.5 High (<=43.1) 95.7 High (<=43.1)
Crude Protein  % 8.5 Standard (6.9-20.9) 8.8 Standard (6.9-20.9)
Potential Intake (g/KgW) 110 High (70-110) 120 High (70-110)
D Value % 57 Low (62) 45 Low (62)
Metabolizable Energy (Mj/kg) 9.1 Low (10) 7.2 Low (10)
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