Traditionally considered most suited to an organic farming system, there is growing interest in red clover seed across all farm types, as farmers realise the potential of the crop from both a yield and protein perspective.
Higher in protein than conventional grass silage
Dr Mary McEvoy of Germinal explains: “Red clover silage is higher in protein than conventional silage and, combined with its ability to yield over 14 t DM/ha, more and more Irish farmers are looking to it as a means to provide high-quality silage.”
Red clover silage has a protein content of 16-20% compared to 12-14% from good quality conventional grass silage. Nitrogen (N) fixing and higher protein and energy values are all part of the attraction to growing red clover for silage and grazing.
Brian Nicholson farms a flock of 1200 ewes just outside Johnstown, County Kilkenny, over a diverse range of crop species, where he incorporates red clover into his system to supply a high energy, high protein silage.
The target for Brian when ensiling red clover is to achieve quality over bulk, which is much of the reason why Brian moved from sowing red clover seed with a hybrid to now incorporating tetraploid grasses into the crop, namely AberGain.
The energy from Brian’s crop needs to be able to support the body condition of ewes that are carrying twins, and in some cases triplets.
In Brian’s case, red clover silage is fed along with regular grass silage to ewes with a high demand for protein and energy but also to housed lambs that are currently within the finishing stage.
Reducing feed bills
Red clover silage can have a significant impact on concentrate feed bills. In the case of Brian Nicholson’s farm, it means feeding as little as 0.4 kg of meal per day on a once-a-day basis, compared to the norm of 1 kg per day, which would usually result in a split-feeding regime.
Since the move from hybrids to using a good tetraploid grass, Brian finds he can better manage the crop while still getting up to three cuts of silage with quality grazing throughout the year.
No nitrogen fertiliser required
Red clover accounts for up to six acres of Brian’s farm. Due to red clover’s nitrogen-fixing ability, no chemical N is required. With regular soil testing, P & K values are closely monitored, with the usual requirement post cutting corrected through the application of dung.
Red clover swards can yield over 15 bales per acre over four cuts. However, the persistency of the sward can be an issue for some. Newer varieties are lasting four to five years compared to three years on older varieties, so it is worth paying attention to the red clover seed varieties you are sowing.
Red clover seed varieties
AberClaret from the IBERS breeding programme in Aberystwyth are among the first varieties to deliver increased persistency, making them much more attractive to many farmers now.
When it comes to the cost-effective finishing of lambs, this clover silage is playing an increasingly important role as seen in Brian’s case, but there are benefits to beef and dairy systems also.
Red clover silage
Animals fed red clover silage over the winter period have growth rates of 1kg per day due to the high feed value, combined with the increased palatability of red clover over conventional grass silage.
Several studies have shown increased milk yield from dairy cows fed on this clover silage compared to grass silage.
The benefits of sowing red clover seeds are hard to ignore. And, as the crop is most suited to silage than grazing, for anyone targeting silage ground for reseeding next spring, it is an option worth considering.
If you need advice on sowing red or white clover, then please ask one of our grassland forage experts.
Red clover silage case study: Eugene Kirrane
A desire to finish organic cattle without bought-in feed inspired Eugene Kirrane to start producing his own high-protein silage with red clover.