During a recent visit to Tullamore Farm, the Irish Farmers Journal demonstration farm in Co Offaly, I had the opportunity to catch up with farm manager Shaun Diver.
We discussed how he has been implementing two of the key pillars of the strategic vision for the 180ac mixed drystock farm, namely, “striving for sustainability” and “building biodiversity”.
Like many farmers, Shaun enjoys sharing the farm with wildlife. He fondly recalls hearing the chorus of corncrakes and curlews while growing up on the family sheep farm in Inishowen, Co Donegal.
Likewise, he was pleased to report that both buzzards and barn owls have been spotted in the skies above Tullamore Farm in recent years. However, he also admits that there is much that can still be done around the farm to increase sustainability and boost biodiversity.
Experimenting with multispecies swards
One area where Shaun has achieved particular success this year is in the utilisation of multispecies swards.
In May 2022, Shaun experimented by sowing a 2.2ha paddock with a multispecies sward mix.
His mix included red clover, white clover, timothy, perennial rye grass (PRG), chicory and plantain. Notably, the sward received no chemical nitrogen.
Shaun reported that despite the dry conditions in May last year, the sward established well; the only issue he faced was growth becoming too strong to keep up with at times.
This year, he grazed the multispecies sward at 2,500kg DM/ha, although he admitted he would have preferred to “go in at 1,700-1,800kgDM/ha”.
Shaun said “the advice is to go in a little heavier than PRG and come out a little earlier”.
Nevertheless, he observed good regrowth even after grazing to 4cm, though he acknowledged that grazing to this height might impact the persistence of some species in the sward and said that he will aim for 5-6cm in future.
Multispecies swards can reduce the carbon footprint of beef
Recent research conducted at UCD, using the same mix of six species that Shaun used on Tullamore Farm, has shown that not only do multispecies swards require 60% less nitrogen fertiliser when compared to other swards, but that they can also produce up to 25% more herbage for cattle.
Furthermore, animals grazing these swards were shown to have reached their target weights five to six weeks earlier than those on PRG swards.
This result translates to a 15% reduction in the carbon footprint of beef produced off multispecies swards.
Growing body of evidence
This research contributes to the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that multispecies swards can effectively reduce farm inputs, enhance farm sustainability and improve animal performance.
In terms of Shaun’s experience, he emphasised that even if both the chicory and the plantain are lost from the sward after a few years, their long tap roots will have enriched the soil and improved drainage, providing long-term benefits to the grazing land.
All things considered, Shaun is confident that this year’s experiment with multispecies swards at Tullamore Farm was a resounding success.