A study of patchiness in mid-season dairy pastures : consequences and control : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Applied Science at Massey University
There is interest among some dairy farmers in increasing herbage intake of cows during spring by increasing pasture cover but without compromising pasture quality into the summer. "Late control" is a grazing management strategy developed in Massey University that meets those requirements (Matthews et al., 1996). In addition, it has been demonstrated in previous trials that Late control increases pasture production in the summer-autumn period by increasing ryegrass tillering vigour. Late control requires a period of lax grazing during spring to allow some reproductive growth development on ryegrass pastures, which is then controlled by hard grazing in late spring before anthesis. However, patchiness may develop in Late control during the lax grazing period when the herbage allowance is high. The objectives for the present experiment were to compare the pasture characteristics under Late control and conventional "Early control" spring management strategies in December-January, with particular reference to the consequences of vegetation heterogeneity to pasture production and utilisation over this period, and to discuss the implications to spring grazing management. The experiment involved detailed studies on three paddocks chosen from each of two farmlets of 22 paddocks used for a system trial comparing Early and Late control spring management on herds of 120 cows. Herbage mass distributions were estimated by taking 200 capacitance meter readings at random on each paddock. Relationships between herbage mass and utilisation and accumulation were estimated by using two 30 m permanent transects in each paddock. To determine botanical composition and tiller population variability within a sward, five tall patches and five short patches were sampled in each paddock. Paddocks in Late control before the control phase in December had more herbage mass than paddocks in Early control (3600 vs. 5000 kg DM/ha), but the variability of herbage mass was similar (1000 vs. 1000, standard deviation in kg DM/ha). The skewness of the herbage mass distribution was positive but greater in Early control than in Late control (0.57 vs. 0.32). Botanical composition was similar between treatments and within paddocks. Pasture morphology showed tiller size-density compensation in both treatments. Pasture characteristics in late control were not an impediment for efficient pasture removal in late control and more herbage was harvested than in Early control (1900 vs. 1000 kg DM/ha), although herbage allowance was greater in Early control. Short patches in both treatments were defoliated in less proportion than tall patches, but in Late control the proportion of short patches was less than in Early control. Therefore, low herbage mass and greater proportion of short patches in Early control had a negative effect on total herbage utilisation. Harvesting efficiency was controlled on Late control paddocks to avoid limitations to herbage intake, and the skewness of the distribution of herbage mass after grazing increased compared to Early control, as well as the proportion of tall poorly utilised patches. Topping of pastures after grazing was effective in removing poorly utilised material and in decreasing patchiness in January. In January, Late control paddocks had more herbage mass, but less patchiness than Early control paddocks (6300 vs. 4700 kg DM/ha). Sward characteristics were affected by treatment, and in general Late control increased ryegrass content and its leafiness during January compared to Early control. In January, herbage utilisation was greater in Late control than in Early control (3000 vs. 1700 kg DM/ha). It was concluded that because Late control had greater responses in tall patches, the objective should be to modify management to a longer rotation length before controlling reproductive growth in late spring, to allow a greater proportion of the sward to achieve high herbage mass. The combination of grazing and topping of pastures gave high herbage intakes and effective pasture control. More pasture was produced in Late control than in Early control and the rotation length can also be increased during the summer in Late control, which may benefit further ryegrass tillering.