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Putting clover to work on Future Beef farms

Putting clover to work on Future Beef farms

Along with supporting increased levels of animal performance, the inclusion of clover – both red and white – in silage and grazing swards can reduce a farm’s dependency on chemical nitrogen.

Over the last number of weeks, farmers participating in the Teagasc Future Beef Programme have been establishing both red clover in silage swards and white clover in grazing swards to not only save on future costs, but to help farm in a more sustainable manner.

Aisling Molloy, Future Beef Programme Advisor, details how a number of farmers involved in the programme have established clover on their farms throughout May.

Red clover for a three-cut silage system

Farming organically in Co. Cork, a red clover / ryegrass mix was sown on May 4th on Kay O’Sullivan’s farm in Mallow, Co. Cork. She plans to use this for a three-cut silage system over the coming years. It was sown after a crop of redstart and it also received 2t/ac of lime at the time of sowing. The mix contained 3kg Aberclyde, 3kg Nashota, 1.5kg Aberwolf, 4kg Rozeta red clover, 0.25kg Dublin white clover and 0.25kg Lightning Persian clover.

In addition, two grass paddocks were sown with a multispecies mix in late April / early May. Again, 2t/ac of lime was applied prior to sowing. One field was poached and Kay decided to plough it before sowing the seed with a one-pass and then rolling it afterwards. The mix contained 3kg Aberplentiful PRG, 2.1kg Nashota PRG, 1.5kg Callan PRG, 1kg Aberswan white clover, 0.5kg Iona white clover, 1.5kg Rozeta red clover, 1kg Plantain, 0.7kg Chicory and 0.7kg Timothy.

Figure 1: Rolled fields after the multispecies sward was sown

Rolled fields on Kay O'Sullivans farm

Another grass paddock was reseeded on May 9th with a grass mix, which was over sown with organic white clover and bird’s foot trefoil. A small spinner is fixed onto the back of the gator, which can be set to allow for a low sowing rate of 2-3kg/acre and Kay uses this to broadcast the seed when over sowing.

Read more on Kay’s farm here, including an update on breeding and grass growth.

Red clover in Co. Clare

Over in Co. Clare, James Skehan was keen to try out a red clover / perennial ryegrass mix in his silage field this year. The field has a soil pH of 6.8, is in index 3 for phosphorus and index 2 for potassium. James is keen to rise the potassium indexes. He spread dung on the field last year and will be spreading a compound like 0-7-30 going forward.

The field itself is an out block to the farm, which is typically cut for silage and is not set up in paddocks for grazing. It had a lot of RVP type grass, which tended to head out very quickly. This was problematic if weather conditions did not suit for cutting and James was disappointed with the silage quality last year. Chickweed, docks and other weeds had also become established in the field.

Figure 2: Field being reseeded with a power harrow and air seeder

Field being reseeded with a power harrow and air seeder on James Skehans farm

A silage crop was growing in the field, which was sprayed off on May 2nd. It was then cut on May 13th and was disc harrowed on May 17th. James was keen to source a red clover variety form the UK recommended list and found one that had 2.38kg of Amos, which he was delighted with. It also contained 2.52kg of a second variety of red clover Garant, which was not on the recommended list, along with 7.7 kg of four perennial ryegrass varieties and 1.4kg of Bianca white clover. The field was sown on May 20th and rolled afterwards. James expects the seedlings to start to appear within two weeks.

Learn how James overcame the challenges of a bad spring here.

Including white clover in a reseed

Farming a suckler system, where bulls are slaughtered under 16 months and heifers are sold as stores at 16-18 months, Ruairi Cummins reseeded two paddocks that were sprayed off in the end of April.

A contractor sowed grass seed with the direct drill. While Ruairi was considering whether to sow with the drill or a disc harrow and one-pass, both methods would be successful but the direct drill was the quickest.

Figure 3: Paddock reseeded by direct drilling

A paddock reseeded by direct drilling on Ruairi Cummins farm

He bought a perennial ryegrass and white clover mix from the local co-op and sowed it at 14-16kg/ac. It contained 3.5kg of Abergain, 3.5kg Aston Energy, 3kg Abermagic and 2kg of Buddy white clover seed. All varieties are from the Irish recommended lists and the mix is 30% diploid and 70% tetraploid. Diploids are generally denser grasses than tetraploids and tiller more freely. They are generally better suited to wetter paddocks than tetraploid varieties.

An update on the breeding performance from Ruairi’s farm is available here.

Over sowing white clover in Co. Cork

Ger McSweeney, who farms in Milstreet, Co. Cork, decided to over sow white clover on his farm for the first time this year. His main aim in doing so is to reduce the chemical nitrogen required by the grazing paddocks.

Firstly, he identified paddocks with suitable soil fertility, i.e. pH >6.5 and in index 3 or higher for both P and K. Then he examined if there was clover in paddocks already - to see if field conditions were suitable to grow it. Next he looked at the weed burden in the field, mainly at docks, to determine if they needed to be controlled before over sowing, as the clover safe spray available has poor control of docks. Finally, Ger examined if the paddocks were open enough to allow clover seed to strike.

After considering all these points, Ger selected five paddocks for over sowing. They are closest to the house, so that he can monitor cattle for any bloat issues if they arise. While the soil pH is lower than 6.5, Ger will be applying 2-3t/acre of lime based on soil sample recommendations to the paddocks this year.

The white clover variety used is called Tasman and is a medium-leaf clover, which is suitable for grazing by cattle. Although it is not on the Irish recommended list, clover availability has been a challenge this year. It was sown at a rate of 2kg/ac. Ger is also planning to over sow the Galway variety of clover in the same paddocks at a rate of 1kg/acre, but is currently delayed with supply issues. Galway is a small-leaf clover that is less susceptible to poaching damage versus bigger leaf varieties. Due to the small leaf size, it is unlikely to contribute much towards animal performance, but will reduce the risk of bloat and will still be effective in fixing nitrogen, which is Ger’s main aim.

The clover was over sown by spreading it in a ‘zig-zag’ pattern across the grazing paddocks. Typically it would be spread with a bag of 0-7-30 or muriate of potash per acre, but Ger adjusted the settings on his fertiliser spreader to spread at a very low rate. The seed was spread either just before the herd entered the paddock to graze or else while they were in the paddock. This allowed the cows 1-2 days to walk the seed into the ground and ensure good seed to soil contact to help it establish, instead of having to roll paddocks. This was followed up with 2,000 gallons/ac of watery slurry.

Figure 4: Clover seedlings beginning to establish on Ger's farm

Clover seedlings beginning to establish on Ger McSweeneys farm

Ger has been watching the paddocks closely and is delighted to see seedlings emerging over the last week. He will graze the paddocks at covers of 1,000kg DM/ha for the next 2-3 rotations. This will allow light down to the clover and ensure that it is not out-competed by the grass.

If the clover establishment is successful, Ger plans to over sow more paddocks next year. There is a 2t/acre requirement for lime on most paddocks on the grazing block, so Ger aims to spread it this year and will look at controlling heavy dock burdens in some other paddocks that may be suitable.

For an update on breeding and animal performance on Ger’s farm, click here. For more information on the Future Beef Programme, click here.

Also read: How's the breeding season progressing for Future Beef Programem farmers?

Also read: Nutrient management of white clover swards