down on the farm
The best way to fight kikuyu: surrender
Iused to dislike autumn. It signals the end of summer and the inevitable progression into winter. But time passes more quickly as one ages and winters now seem a less fearsome prospect.
It also has a lot to do with our better preparedness, which has a lot to do with what happens in autumn.
Seasonal timings naturally differ throughout this land but here in the Far North – our farm is 20 minutes southwest of Kaitaia – April is usually still quite warm and pleasant. Apart from the clock time changing with the end of Daylight Saving on the first Sunday and its cooler night-time temperatures, April often feels very much like an extension of summer. I believe that is not the case further south.
As long as we've not had an extended drought, it's a time of rampant pasture growth. There's enormous pleasure in watching the young animals growing healthy and fast, their mothers laying down reserves to get them through any tough spells during the winter, and everyone generally looking fabulous.
But in this region, if a farmer has not deliberately excluded kikuyu grass, this can be a troublesome time. If you don't keep kikuyu under good control now, it will have implications throughout winter and next spring.
Autumn is when kikuyu puts much of its energy into its expansive stolon growth, the sturdy, luscious-looking green tendrils which creep out across any bare area or up toward the sky if the surrounding grass is already long. It also rapidly grows green leaf. This, if eaten and kept controlled at this stage, provides a nutritious feed for young stock.
But it doesn't take long to harden off and become less so. If you only have
young animals, they need to be kept moving onto the best feed, not left to tidy up the remainder as the low nutritive value of old kikuyu is not sufficient for young animals' growth.
Further south (and further south again as the climate warms and kikuyu's range expands), timely management is even more important and problematic. In the north, in a mild winter's early months, kikuyu will continue to grow a little before it eventually goes into dormancy. In colder climates it will become dormant much earlier and will not provide any winter feed. Other grasses must be allowed to grow vigorously in the same pastures, which means the kikuyu must be managed well so winter feed species can flourish. If not controlled, kikuyu yu will grow to a metre etre or more in height and nd shade out any opportunity for other pasture plants to come away.
Our farm and stock numbers are just big enough to manage the situation reasonably well, although dropping cow numbers to better feed everyone through thet winter has reduced the grazing pressure we're able to apply at peak growth times. A m mower has also become a valued addition to pa pasture management. M Mature cows can go into overgrow overgrown kikuyu pastures for short stints a at high stocking rates, to clean up what younger animals leave behind and it won't do them much harm. However, only feeding them this rubbish isn't sensible because they still need adequate nutrition to maintain themselves and their developing calves.
Applying grazing pressure means putting a good number of animals in a small enough area that they can take the pasture level right down in a matter of hours, rather than days (see next page for a demonstration). Often I will break a small paddock into even smaller areas with electric tape and move it a couple or three times in a day, just to achieve that aim. Depending on cow condition (if they're in good condition they can tolerate a bit of hard doing; if not, I won't make them work so hard) we may mow after they've done their job.
What to do when your kikuyu is out of control
Don't despair. The repeated application of many mouths will eventually restore an area to acceptable pasture.
On a first pass, cattle will only take the easy green feed. But with a bit of pressure, they inevitably eat some of the understorey. After the grass has had some recovery time (in a warm, damp period, that may be only a week or so) they can graze again, taking the new green leaf and a bit more of the understorey. Eventually the inedible parts are trampled in and the growing grass is short and nutritious again.
Kikuyu pasture cannot be saved for later use in winter because it is completely sensitive to frost. A luscious-looking paddock of emerald-green kikuyu will bleach out and shrivel away to nothing within a couple of days after a frost. That's why in autumn, we don't shut up paddocks to grow feed for the winter but furiously graze them down low.
Ruth's tip: don't make hay – oversow
Some people make hay from kikuyu but unless very well managed, the result is often a poor offering for winter feed. A more sensible thing to do is to over-sow a rye grass variety which is active during winter and spring.
You don't need a lot of equipment to have a positive effect on your pastures. I've sown as much as 10ha (25 acres) in one season by hand. If you're relatively able-bodied, it's a great pre-winter fitness programme, walking up and down, up and down, flinging seed onto pastures.
The timing of over-sowing is very much weather dependent. It needs to be done before overnight temperatures go too low but if there has been no rain, there's little point in sowing until there is moisture for germination. Sometimes that makes sowing here just a wee bit late for really excellent early growth, slowing things down and meaning paddocks can't be grazed again for a bit longer than I'd like.
Usually an over-sown paddock can be lightly grazed after about six weeks. But if germination is delayed by dry or cold conditions, that may need to be extended by another week or two.
On the other hand, sowing when the temperatures have dropped a little means the recovery of the kikuyu is slowed a bit, so it doesn't grow so fast as to inhibit the growth of the new grass by too quickly shading it out.
Sowing too much of your grazing area at once is unwise if there's insufficient grazing elsewhere for your animals when your sown paddocks are shut up while the new grass is getting established. I got a bit too enthusiastic in my 10ha year and hadn't thought that through very well! I've taken to alternating the paddocks I sow each year when using any of the Italian rye species, which are supposed to last only a couple of years.
The lush Italian rye seed is not cheap but the value of the grass grown as fresh feed for the animals when they need it compares very well with making or buying in hay. The bonuses: I don't have to store it in my non-existent barn,
Mature kikuyu will provide good feed for stock, although very young animals should not be fed exclusively on such grass.
After grazing, a paddock vacuum cleaner would be useful but this will all become part of the soil, eventually.
Masses of feed for all during kikuyu's active season.
A strip mown by a scrub-bar shows how much the kikuyu will shade everything underneath it.
Out on the hills, cows are still the best tool we have to keep kikuyu under control.
Well- Well-maintained maintained kikuyu will have clover and other pasture species amongst it, providing an excellent feed source for young animals.
Above left: this is how to get out-of-control kikuyu under control again. The first graze (left) takes the top green leaf until there's no green leaf remaining (right). After 7-10 days, the cows will come back again, and this pattern will be repeated three or four times. The grass will come back to a nutritiously-productive length again, and clover will be receiving enough light to grow back amongst it.
Ruth's seedsowing apron.