Red clover eliminates organic farm’s need for bought-in protein

Monday 26.07.2021 , events , news

A drive to finish organic cattle without the need for bought-in feed led Eugene Kirrane to start producing his own high-protein red clover silage.

Eugene farms with his wife Fidelma near Claremorris in County Mayo, finishing around 100 beef cattle a year on 140 acres. It was during the farm’s conversion to an organic system, and with the aim of reducing the reliance on bought-in protein, Eugene first introduced red clover, seven years ago.

“We started converting the farm to organic back in 2011,” explains Eugene. “As part of this process we moved towards a lower cost system, with the aim of not buying-in feed thereby avoiding volatility in both the feed and beef market. For us, this was challenging as we have a long winter with cattle housed for six months but still need to achieve consistent growth rates.”

Cattle are brought onto the farm at 400kg and have a daily liveweight gain (DLG) target of 1kg/day. “We started to explore options that would allow us to achieve this growth rate during the housed period using homegrown feeds,” says Eugene. “This led us to look at a red clover and grass silage mix with its ability to produce high yields of protein-rich silage. We sowed our first red clover mix seven years ago and haven’t looked back.

“We start our reseed in spring, taking time to prepare the seedbed before ploughing in farmyard manure. Slurry is then applied after the first cut, normally at a rate of 2,000 gallons/acre but this can vary with weather and ground conditions. In autumn, we go back in again with farmyard manure.

“Once established our aim is to take four cuts of silage a year, with six weeks between each cut. Using this system, we see good yields of 13-15t DM/ha, at around 18-19% protein, and we’re also able to keep the weeds at bay. We do find the amount of clover varies between each cut, with the highest levels normally occurring in our late summer cuts.”

One of the challenges on Eugene’s farm is high rainfall and heavy soils. “We’re often at risk of soil compaction and find red clover can struggle in these conditions. You notice this on machinery track regrowth, where red clover is often absent from the swards. To overcome this, we avoid cutting too late in the year; we’d rather miss a cut than risk soil compaction and damage to the sward. Although conditions may not be perfect, it’s about learning to make the best of what you have – always looking for solutions until you find something that works for you.”

cows-grazingMaintaining the sward

To achieve persistency with his red clover, Eugene uses the latest genetics and regular overseeding to maintain the sward.

“At the moment we expect about four to five years out of our red clover swards, but there is some variation across the farm. Once we notice a sward needs rejuvenating, we go in with an overseeder and stitch in red clover. We normally look to do this after the second cut of silage, but it can vary depending on the weather.

“To maximise the chance of successful establishment when overseeding, we’re looking for warm and wet conditions to help the seed germinate. Although rare here, we always avoid overseeding during a dry period as this can have a substantial impact on its success. We work on one small section at a time. This allows us to address any subtle variations in red clover levels and try different approaches on small areas first,” Eugene adds.

This year Eugene decided to try undersowing his usual red clover mix with barley and spring peas as a solution to weed control.

“The idea of this was to enhance weed control as we sometimes have a problem with redshank and docks,” explains Eugene. “We sowed at the start of April in ideal conditions but unfortunately this was followed by heavy rain and cold temperatures. Although the crop has generally established well, the late frosts mean there isn’t as much barley in the sward as we’d hoped, and we’re seeing more weeds than we would like. But considering the poor start, it seems to have recovered fairly well. After a first cut in mid-July, we’ll take two more cuts at six-week intervals.”

Taking this approach to homegrown, high protein feeds has meant Eugene is able to reduce the environmental impact of his farm. “Although it is not the only driving force behind our on-farm decision making, as an organic farm, sustainability is very important to us. Red clover plays a vital role in this through its nitrogen-fixing abilities and because it allows us to finish our cattle entirely on homegrown feed. For us, sustainability is all about being productive while keeping our costs down and avoiding negative impacts on the environment wherever possible,” he concludes.

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