How to improve grassland quality

The three aspects to grassland and pasture quality are sward quality, nutritional quality and animal health. Each of these aspects is greatly influenced and improved by a balanced nutrition programme.

Nutrition influences all aspects of grass quality

There are three aspects to grassland and pasture quality: sward quality, nutritional quality and animal health.

Sward quality

Sward quality is influenced more by other agronomic practices as well as grazing management, however maintaining a good level of soil fertility and incorporating a balanced crop nutrition programme should be an important part of grassland management.

There is also indirect evidence that several nutrients including potassium, molybdenum, boron, zinc and manganese reduce disease infection in cereals, so by extension this is also likely to be the same for forage grass species.

Nutritional quality

Nutritional quality of grass is typically measured by digestibility, protein and dry matter content which can all be influenced by crop nutrition.

Digestibility depends on growth stage and nutrition – young, leafy swards have higher D and ME levels than those that have started to head or contain a lot of dead material. Grasslands with a balanced nutrition stategy will be more palatable than those that are underfertilized.

Protein levels depend on grass growth stage and are affected by crop nutrition, especially nitrogen fertilization. Levels increase in early spring. Protein formation depends on the plants ability to take up nitrogen from the soil – so can be influenced by nitrogen applications but also by potash and sulphur levels and soil pH.

Dry Matter Content is the most variable and the least controllable. Low dry matter is often associated with wet weather and poor growing conditions. As well as having a direct effect on yield, this also tends to reduce the quality and lead to lower daily intake. Also, in silage a high dry matter content (>40 %) can leads to lower intake.

Animal health

Animal health and trace element nutrition should also be considered as an aspect of grass quality. Grazing animals have different requirements for trace elements to those that are required for grass growth so it is important to ensure these elements are present in the grass in sufficient levels to meet the animals’ nutritional requirements. Sodium and selenium are both essential for animal health but are not required by plants and guidelines for other trace elements such as magnesium, zinc and copper are higher in grazing animals than present in grass.

Nitrogen excess reduces palatability of silage

High rates of nitrogen can also cause problems with silage fermentation due to excess nitrate having a negative impact on the fermentation process and will produce silage that is less palatable and the animals will be less keen to eat it.

The Grassland Rule – The correct level of N to apply

Nitrate is generally taken up by grasses quicker than it is incorporated into proteins and until used this excess known as luxury uptake is stored in the leaves. Excess nitrate will be present if insufficient time is allowed between application and mowing and can also occur under conditions of poor growth eg low light levels, cool temperatures. It is also a problem if there is a dry spell after application, when nitrate cannot be taken up by the roots, followed by a period of wet weather that results in luxury uptake. The plant cannot convert it to protein quickly enough so it accumulates in the plant.

High rates of nitrogen may cause a reduction in crop sugars as they are used to provide energy for the increased rate of plant growth and for the manufacture of plant proteins and this increased growth rate may in turn lead to lower crop dry matter content although in practice this is often not significant.

Excess nitrate can be avoided by following the Grassland Rule to apply nitrogen at the rate of no more than 2.5 kg N/ha/day.

Phosphorus deficiency reduces digestability

Phosphorus plays a role in many plant metabolic processes and enzyme activities, so even though phosphorus demand is low compared to that of nitrogen its availability is essential. Where there is a deficiency or low availability of phosphorus the nutritional quality and digestibilty of the forage will be reduced. 

 Major nutrient uptake distance from roots

Phosphorus is very immobile in soil and its availability is limited by both pH and by distance from plant roots.

Potassium controls rate of leaf growth

Potassium is the nutrient taken up in the greatest quantity by grassland swards.

Potassium has a wide ranging role in the plant affecting nutrient uptake, photosynthesis, rate of growth and feed value.

If adequate amounts of potassium are not available the rate of growth and yield will be restricted, however there can be dangers to animal health if excess potassium is applied with an increased risk of hypomagnesaemia.

Sulphur is essential for protein content

Sulphur is essential in the formation of proteins amino acids and enzymes and so is crucial for growth and development.

Effect of sulphur on crude protein and sugar content of grass

Effect of sulphur on grass sugar content

Magnesium deficiency can cause animal health issues

Magnesium also needs to be considered. Magnesium is an essential nutrient, and in situations where magnesium is deficient, there will be a significant reduction in grassland quality and may have serious consequences on animal health.

Sodium and selenium are both essential for animal health but are not required by plants and guidelines for other trace elements such as magnesium, zinc and copper are higher in grazing animals than present in grass.

Sodium improves palatability

Sodium is important for animal nutrition and often the grass contains an insufficient amount to meet the requirements of grazing animals.

Symptoms of sodium deficiency in cattle may include low appetite, reduced fertility and reduced milk production. Sodium also increases the palatability of forage, therefore increasing dry matter intake.

Fertilisers containing sodium increase the sodium levels in grass and have also been shown to increase productivity.

The effect of sodium on milk yield and silage intake

Influence of fertiliser on sodium content of grass

 

Selenium is an essential nutrient for animals

Selenium is an essential nutrient for animals, necessary for the formation of glutathione peroxidase, an anti-oxidant, but is not widely recognised as a plant nutrient. 

Health benefits following selenium application

Influence of selenium containing fertiliser on selenium content in grass

Other crop management practices influencing grassland quality

Growers can also influence grassland quality with the following agronomic practices:

  • Maintaining the correct soil pH.
  • Maintaining good soil structure and minimizing soil compaction.
  • Improving and maintaining soil drainage.
  • Maintaining a high proportion of the desired grass species within the sward to maximise nutritional value.
  • Regularly reseeding and/or oversowing to maintain high quality swards across the farm and selecting varieties for quality as well as yield.
  • Topping to remove course material and harrowing to remove dead matter and open the sward, both of which will encourage tillering.
  • Managing grazing effectively to avoid damage and minimise rejected areas.
Grass and forage agronomy and fertiliser advice
Grass and forage agronomy and fertiliser advice

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