Experience tells us that grassland productivity eventually reduces to the level that it needs to be restored and returned to its full potential. Let’s look at the most efficient and cost-effective way to do this.
Cost of the grass seed
With grass seed costing in the region of £5 per kilogramme (depending on the species mixture and quantity required) and a seed rate of 25-35Kg per hectare needed, then a cost of £125 to £175 requires careful thought and consideration to deliver success. Forward planning and timely implementation are crucial.
The mixture of species and varieties needs to be designed to thrive in their given environment, as well as meeting the objectives of the stock owner.
Timing grass seed
Early spring or autumn are the optimum times for establishment. This allows time for the grass to become robust enough to withstand the rigours of our summer droughts and winter frosts. Warm, actively functioning soils are essential. Soil temperatures of at least 6C are required as a minimum for success.
Fundamentally, the ideal soil needs to contain 25 per cent water, 25 per cent air, 45 per cent mineral content (sand / silt / clay) and five per cent organic matter. Creating and sustaining these proportions despite the weather is the challenge we have to face to maintain and increase productivity.
The majority of land that is utilised for grassland has an inherently low soil productivity level. This combined with undulating topography means that there are few options for growing arable crops in these environments, therefore grass and stock are the best financially viable option.
When grass has grown in any environment for a period of five years or more it has generated a self-sustaining environment that it can thrive in.
Grass roots produce an exudate that feeds the soil microbes, which in return liberate soil based nutrition for the roots to absorb and the plant to utilise. This is cyclical, and as long as the roots grow then the plant will be able to flourish and thrive.
Without air pockets in the soil, roots will struggle to grow. Therefore, they are wasting energy forcing roots through the soil when they could be producing green leaf area to feed our stock.
The natural cycle of plant growth and decay over the season generates organic matter which starts to decay in the soil. Over time this is then broken down by the worms to create invaluable humus for the plants to utilise as a food source. After five or more years this cycle has generated a significant energy source in the soil for the plants to utilise. In principle the more organic matter that can be created in the soil, the more productive the sward will be. As a direct consequence fertiliser applications can be significantly reduced.
It is prudent to assess the soil nutrient level prior to drilling, as both Phosphate and Magnesium are essential for successful root development and therefore plant growth.
Cost-effective grassland management
Looking back to the 1950s and 60s, tired grassland would be ploughed up, the soil renovated and re-sown into a fine, firm, tilth. But, to maximise the financial return for the farm and utilise all the organic matter the grass had generated, a crop of Potatoes or Cereals would have been sow.
Cocksfoot Dactylis glomerata was widely grown as it has the same feed value as Ryegrass but is perennial – therefore productivity leaves do not reduce over time. If we consider the lack of cultivation options that they had, the size of the plough that was used and that the soil organic matter was likely to have been in excess of eight to 10 per cent, then this strategy could be implemented with a high degree of success for both arable crops and grassland.
If we also then consider the cost of diesel and time in those halcyon days to create this environment, then this strategy was obviously a viable option.
Of course, today we could still burn recreational diesel and beat the soil into submission to create a billiard table for our grass to be drilled into. Unfortunately, this strategy only serves to burn off (volatilise) the limited organic matter contained in the soil, destroy all the hard work the worms have employed to create a prolific environment and destroy the ecosystem that the microbes lived in to help the grass flourish. It will probably look good though.
If we consider that all the time the grass has been growing, it has been generating the necessary environmental interactions in the soil to create the perfect growing medium in which grass can thrive. Ploughing just destroys all of that, and serves to delay establishment and productivity, as well as costing far too much both in time and money.
For maximising grass productivity, we need to be generating a dense sward. This means that when we are stood in the field and look down, all that we see is grass. Not soil and some grass!
The old, tired grass may be unproductive but the most efficient way of generating a productive sward is to use a slot-drill to ‘stitch’ the new seed into the perfect growing environment created by the old grass. Establishment success is virtually guaranteed, and the new grass soon outcompetes the old grass providing the required productive environment for minimal time and expense.
This method of establishment negates the damage that slugs can do, and also stops the wind from blowing tiny soil particles across the field that then act as sand-paper and shred the delicate young plants.
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