Clover and multi-species drive sustainable dairy production in Tipperary

Thursday 23.05.2024 , News

We hosted an April farm walk in partnership with Brian Hogan of Horse & Jockey, Co. Tipperary, exploring the sustainable production benefits of clover and multi-species in a dairy system.

Featuring several Germinal experts, it was an insightful event for farmers and seed trade representatives wanting to learn best practices for establishing and managing these forage crops. You can read some of those practices below.

Producing dairy sustainably

Seven years ago, Brian developed a strategy to reduce his chemical nitrogen fertiliser use with clover. Working with Germinal Technical Director Dr Mary McEvoy and Teagasc advisor Thea Broderick, Brian planned to increase the clover content on grazing and silage ground across the farm.

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“We have made some mistakes,” Brian explains, “but you learn and you improve. Overall, it has been working for us. But it is something you need to plan for. Maybe look to reseed 10-15% of the farm each year. You must also build up fertility with Ps and Ks, and lime is also very important.”

In 2023, Brian sowed a red and white clover grazing mix for the first time, alongside the top grass varieties of AberGain, AberChoice, Ballyvoy, and Ballintoy.

“Following reseeding, red clovers start fixing nitrogen in the first year, but white clovers won’t get going until year two. Temperature is also very important and we cut chemical nitrogen fertiliser use almost completely from about the middle of the grazing season from June, and certainly from 1st July.”

Also paying close attention to herd health, Brian plans his grazing management based on the condition of the cows.

“With clover, it is important that you pay close attention to your cows and how hungry they look. I don’t let them into paddocks with a lot of clover if they look hungry.

“We haven’t had problems with bloat, but we manage it carefully. Also, at this stage, our cows are used to clover in their diet.”

Reseeding checklist for grass-clover swards

Echoing Brian’s views, Germinal expert Diarmuid Murphy shared a reseeding checklist for grass-clover swards. “Farmers need to plan,” Diarmuid begins. “This must start with identifying which paddocks to reseed and then soil test. This will determine soil fertility and if you need to build up fertility by applying adequate N, P and K. Lime is also critical.

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“In preparing the seedbed, farmers have options: normally ploughing or minimum tilling (or ‘min-till’) – each has its own requirements. After you burn off the existing sward with glyphosate, you can normally reseed about a week after ploughing. However, if min-till such as discing is used, you should wait longer to ensure the old sward has been properly removed. Maybe up to three weeks before sowing.”

Diarmuid recommends rolling, saying: “The advice we all got from our fathers is that the seedbed should be firm enough to cycle a bike across. While this might be a bit of an exaggeration, rolling the ploughed field after tilling, and then after sowing seed is still advisable. The grass and clover seed should barely be below the surface; just a few millimetres.

“We recommend applying your chosen mixture at a rate of 14kg per acre. As mixtures are sold in 12kg bags, this works out at a recommending sowing rate of a bit over a bag to the acre, or about six 12kg bags for five acres.”

Early weed control is crucial in the newly sown sward. With limited herbicides available for weed control later, especially in clover swards, action needs to be taken before weeds can establish, Diarmuid advises.

The differences between red and white clover

Claire Bailey Archibald, who represents Germinal as Area Sales Manager in the northeast, was on hand to describe the differences between red and white clover.

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Using plant samples, Claire highlighted root nodules containing bacteria that can fix atmospheric nitrogen from the environment, delivering it to grass-clover swards.

“The nitrogen fixing abilities of clover relate to temperature. Clovers start to grow and fix from about 8°C, whereas perennial ryegrasses start to grow from around 6°C. You can tell that active nitrogen fixing is going on when the root nodules turn a pink colour.”

Soil pH is important for clover and results must be correctly interpreted when testing, Claire advises. “The measure of soil acidity using pH can be a bit misleading. The pH scale is not linear but logarithmic. While you may only have a difference of 0.2 or 0.3, the actual difference between how acidic your soil is and the recommended target could be five, ten, or even 100 times.

“If the target pH range is 6.3 to 6.5, then it is important to apply lime to achieve this and not be satisfied with a lower level.”

The benefits of grass-clover swards

Discussing grass-clover swards, Dr Mary McEvoy highlighted several benefits: “Grass-clover swards provide improvements in the quality of the sward, higher performance in terms of milk yield and quality, and a significant reduction in nitrogen fertiliser requirements.

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“The productivity of grass-clover swards in dry matter is particularly marked at lower application rates of nitrogen fertiliser. The full benefits come from a complete reseed followed by management of the sward to ensure good establishment. This will include proper weed control and grazing management.”

Mary continued with advice on overseeding existing grazing swards with white clover. “You should easily see the soil beneath the sward and sow at 3-4kg per acre. We also recommend controlling weeds prior to sowing and spread with a P and K fertiliser.

“Also, do the mixing in the field and not in the yard,” Mary continues. “Clover seed is very small and can separate in transporting from yard to field, resulting in an uneven spread. We would also recommend frequent grazing of the over-sown sward to give newly sown clover every advantage in getting established.”

Red clover silage advice

Pat Delaney, Area Sales Manager in the south and southwest, spoke about red clover silage. Advising wilting for 48 hours after cutting, he said: “The heart of the red clover plant is the crown which is at ground level. It is from this crown that the taproot grows which helps red clover establish quickly and makes it somewhat drought tolerant.

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“It is important to avoid damaging the crown. Cutting bars should be set a little higher. We recommend cutting at six-to-eight-week intervals and applying adequate P and K of around 25kg of K and 3kg of P per hectare for every tonne of DM removed.

“Grass should also be well rolled in the pit to avoid any air pockets and spoiling, particularly if the crop is a bit strong when cut. Red clover silage works really well in a bale.”

Establishing multi-species swards

As Agricultural Product Manager, David Little, spoke about Germinal’s multi-species swards mixtures that are made up of selected grass, legume, and herb varieties.

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“Our multi-species mixtures contain Perennial Ryegrass and Timothy grass seed, White and Red Clover, and Chicory and Plantain herb seeds.

“We recommend using multi-species in a full reseed, ideally in the spring, into a clean, firm seedbed. We would also recommend fertilising with three bags of 10:10:20 at sowing.

“It’s also advisable to do a pull test of the new sward at the first grazing and rotationally graze every 25-28 days down to about 5cm,” David recommends. “Avoid poaching in the new sward. Any surplus can be cut for silage but again we would recommend a 48-hour wilt.”

Ask Germinal about sustainable forage production

You grow highly productive grass and forage with added sustainability benefits. Ask your local Germinal expert below.

David Little, Area Sales Manager, Northern Ireland
T: 07718 658716
E: [email protected]

Diarmuid Murphy, Area Sales Manager, Southeast/Midlands/West
T: 085 747 3865
E: [email protected]

Claire Bailey Archibald, Area Sales Manager, Northeast
T: 087 470 6908
E: [email protected]

Pat Delaney, Area Sales Manager, South/Southwest
T: 085 841 6477
E: [email protected]