How to increase grassland yield

The main yield components of grass are the number of leaves per unit area and dry matter content. Higher yields come from optimising leaf numbers, maintaining a green leaf canopy and achieving a high dry matter content. A balanced fertiliser programme including all macro and micronutrients is essential to help manage all of these components.

Nitrogen is the crucial nutrient for influencing grassland yield. Requirements for potassium, phosphate, sulphur, calcium, and magnesium are related to the amount of applied nitrogen. There is a large demand for these macronutrients during early spring growth and to avoid limiting yield it is critical that sufficient quantities of nutrients are available for uptake when required by the plant.

Nitrogen effects on grassland yield

Nitrogen is the major nutrient required by grass. It is the key to achieving high dry matter yields and is often strategically used to increase production as it is needed. The key to achieving high yields is to apply the correct amount of nitrogen, from the right source at the right time.

Nitrogen response curve for first cut silage
This chart shows the typical nitrogen response from applications of AN or Urea based on Yara trials conducted over many years. The actual optimum will tend to vary depending on site location and grass growth potential.

The Grassland Rule – The correct level of N to apply

Nitrogen is taken up by grass species quicker than it is incorporated into proteins and other structures so to allow optimum efficiency sufficient time must pass between application and cutting or grazing. This has led to the development of the Grassland Rule to apply nitrogen at the rate of 2.5 kg N/ha/day achieve optimum production efficiency.

Phosphorus effects on grassland yield

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. Phosphorus accelerates and improves grass growth and is important for increasing yield. The older the sward, the more important is phosphorus fertilization.

Influence of soil pH on the soil phosphate availability

Influence of soil temperature on phosphate availability

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

Cold temperatures, either soil or ambient will reduce the uptake of phosphate, inducing deficiency symptoms in the leaf.  Even when there is an adequate level of phosphate in the soil, deficiency symptoms can still be induced.

Potassium effects on grassland yield

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.

Potassium is particularly important for increasing stem strength, improving drought resistanceand cold tolerance and importantly for increasing yield. Potassium fertilization is more important especially in autumn and on older grass. Nowadays potassium deficiency is becoming more of a problem, especially in some Scandinavian countries.

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.

Silage yield response to potash on low K index soils

These data from UK show the potassium response on different K status soils.

There is also a relationship between nitrogen and potassium as the response of grass to nitrogen is dependent on an available supply of potassium to allow N uptake as nitrate and conversion into proteins.

Grassland management has a large effect on potassium requirements. Mowing regimes for silage or hay remove large quantities of potassium that needs to be replaced and it is logical to return this as manures whenever possible. Grazing regimes have very different requirements as a large proportion of the potassium is returned directly to the sward and the need for potassium will be lower.

Phosphate and potash demand by grass and stocking rate
These data show the quantities of P and K removed by mowing and balances this with returns from livestock either directly as slurries and manures.

Sulphur and magnesium effects on grassland yield

Sulphur is essential in the formation of protein and so is crucial for growth and development. As grass grows both sulphur and nitrogen are used together so sulphur deficiency will decrease nitrogen use efficiency and so reduce yield. Historically sulphur was supplied by atmospheric deposition however as a result of reduced industrial emissions and improved air quality this has become much lower in recent years so increased responses to sulphur is now seen in grass and other crops.

Yield response of grass to sulphur
These data come from a series of trials in the 1990s showing the increased yield in response to sulphur. Since then due to reduced atmospheric deposition, the response will certainly have increased.

Effect of sulphur on first cut silage yield

Effect of different fertilisers on grass dry matter yield

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 yield.

Micronutrients effects on grassland yield

Effect of manganese and zinc on first cut silage yield
Zinc and manganese have also been proven to have effects on grassland yield.

Other crop management practices influencing grassland yield

  • Maintaining the correct soil pH
  • Maintaining good soil structure and minimising soil compaction 
  • Improving and maintaining soil drainage 
  • Maintaining a high proportion of desired species within the sward to maximises nutritional value and yield
  • 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 rejection.

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