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Springing into Organics: A Clover Grazing Guide

Springing into Organics: A Clover Grazing Guide

Clodagh Morgan, Walsh Scholar, Teagasc Galway/Clare, discusses the role of clover in enhancing soil fertility, biodiversity, and sustainability.

Spring may be taking its time to appear this year, however, we still need to be prepared when it finally arrives and breathes new life into the Irish countryside. Organic livestock farmers across the country are turning their attention to preparing their grazing platforms. In sustainable farming practices, clover emerges as a key driver, enriching soil fertility, promoting biodiversity, and eliminating the reliance on artificial inputs. Amidst the preparations for the upcoming growing season, mastering the art of clover grazing takes centre stage, offering an invaluable enhancement to pasture productivity and sustainability. While clover continues to be the fundamental ingredient in achieving optimal organic grassland production, it is also of significant importance on conventional farms, bringing the same benefits in addition to reducing the fertiliser bill.

Clover, whether white or red, stands as a cornerstone of organic farming in Ireland. Filled with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, clover harnesses atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into a form of nitrogen, readily accessible to plants. This not only improves soil fertility but also minimises the need for chemical nitrogen fertilisers while mitigating environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. White clover can contribute up to 150kgs of Nitrogen /ha while a mixed grass-red clover sward can contribute 150-200kg of N/ha. Moreover, clover's robust roots enhance soil structure, support water retention, and serve as a haven for beneficial insects and pollinators, enriching biodiversity in grassland ecosystems.

Ireland is well known for its ability to produce quality products from a grass-based system. In this predominantly grassland-driven agricultural landscape, strategic clover grazing is pivotal for farm success. Grass production was traditionally dominated by perennial ryegrass. The increasing inclusion of clover in grass swards now offers benefits like increased forage quality, extended grazing seasons, and enhanced animal performance. By eliminating chemical nitrogen fertiliser dependence and facilitating nitrogen fixation, clover empowers farmers to trim production costs while safeguarding soil health and fertility.

Establishing red or white clover in Irish organic livestock systems is a meticulous process, but one that reaps significant benefits for pasture health and productivity. Careful selection of clover varieties tailored to local conditions is essential, along with adequate soil preparation to ensure fertility, weed-free conditions, and proper drainage. When sowing clover seeds, whether broadcasting or drilling, uniform distribution across the field is vital for optimal establishment. Choosing companion grass species such as late heading diploid varieties of perennial ryegrass can complement clover growth and help foster a harmonious pasture eco-system. Throughout the establishment phase, vigilant weed management and appropriate moisture levels are crucial for success. By incorporating these practices, organic farmers can establish robust clover stands, laying the foundation for sustainable and productive livestock systems.

Once clover is successfully established, effective management practices are crucial to maximising its benefits. Maintaining white clover swards at an optimal height of 5-7 centimetres encourages regrowth and utilisation while preventing stress to the plants. Rotational grazing systems should be implemented to allow for rest periods between grazing sessions, promoting the regrowth of clover and other forage species. Monitoring grazing intensity is essential to prevent overgrazing of clover-rich pastures, with adjustments to stocking rates and grazing duration as needed to match forage availability. Encouraging livestock to graze closer to the ground promotes clover utilisation, particularly for sheep, which tend to graze lower-growing plants like clover. Mixed-species grazing with cattle and sheep can also optimise the utilisation of clover and other forages, as cattle tend to graze taller vegetation while sheep access lower-growing plants. Regular assessment of clover quantity and health enables informed management decisions, including adjustments to grazing techniques, nutrient application schedules, and weed management strategies. One of the key management tasks in maintaining clover in a grass sward is allowing sufficient light into the clover plant, if grass paddocks are not grazed out, the taller grass plant will reduce the amount of light getting to the clover plant and therefore reduce its growth and its nitrogen-fixing ability. Clover has a horizontal growth pattern and cannot compete with grass. In a red clover sward, used in silage swards, clover plants should be allowed to flower before harvesting the first cut of silage to help root development and the growth of the bacteria that fix N. In subsequent years, silage harvesting should occur at intervals of six to eight weeks, anytime between bud development and early flowering.

As the organic farmers focus on their grazing platforms. Clover, the unsung hero enriching soil fertility and biodiversity, is central to their success. Mastering clover management is more than a choice—it's a proven recipe for success, reminding us that the best solutions are often right under our noses, or in this case, under our hooves.

Springing into Organics
Red Clover Silage Sward

Springing into Organics
Horizontal Root System of White Clover Plant