I’ve never been big into clover, not because I didn’t think it was worth while, but more because it didn’t really seem to suit my style of farming.
Being heavily stocked and lashing on fertiliser every three weeks tended to leave it difficult to keep clover in the sward.
But like many other farmers, the price of fertiliser has made me at least start to look at it a little closer.
As I had already said last October, I am going to sow a red clover sward this year to use for silage cutting, but when I was offered the opportunity by Goldcrop to visit Teagasc's research farm in Solohead, Co Tipperary, and see first-hand what Dr James Humphreys is achieving from clover, I jumped at the chance.
Solohead farm comprises of 140 acres of heavy land with 140 cows.
The farm is then split up into three trials. The first trial is receiving 270kg N/ha, the second trial is receiving 96kg N/ha along with clover and the third trial is clover only, with no chemical N being applied.
All of the trials are stocked at 2.5 cows/ha and all three trials are growing in the region of 15t DM/ha.
Because of the reduction in nitrogen costs, the third trial is the most profitable, achieving almost an extra €700/ha of a net margin.
So how is this being achieved I hear you ask and can anyone do it?
It’s being achieved by incorporating both red and white clover into the swards, which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it available for grass growth in the soil.
I suppose anyone can do it, but this farm is most definitely at the top of its game, having over 20 years’ experience growing and managing clover.
Bloat in animals is something that a farmer needs to be mindful of
A high level of management and attention to detail is almost certainly needed to make this system work. Bloat in animals is something that a farmer needs to be mindful of when grazing high clover swards.
There’s a lot to learn, but it definitely can be learned.
James made several interesting observations as we walked through the paddocks on the farm.
The first being that the biggest challenge a farmer faces when trying to move to a clover system is to stop themselves from spreading nitrogen. Clover does not like chemical nitrogen and to work effectively and persist, little to none should be spread.
This can be difficult to embrace and farmers can sometimes panic, think a sward is not performing or growing at a particular time and start lashing on the bag stuff.
The second point to be aware of is that no nitrogen does not mean no fertiliser.
Good P and K levels as well as good soil Ph are essential. Lime and 0:7:30 are often used on the farm.
James told us all to divide up each paddock in our mind's eye into square metres and if at this time of year you had one clover plant visible in each square metre, then there was 100% coverage in that paddock.
For a clover sward to be viable without nitrogen, there needs to be more than 70% coverage in the paddock.
Good starting place
He suggested that anyone wishing to try out clover, that a red clover silage sward was a good place to start.
It was probably slightly easier to manage than the grazing sward and with good management the red clover should last up to six years.
Then you would be left with a white clover and ryegrass sward, which in his opinion still didn’t need nitrogen.
The advice he gave to anyone wishing to try it in their grazing platform was as follows.
Any paddocks recently reseeded which had close to 100% coverage, stop spreading nitrogen on them.
Any paddocks which have above 70% coverage, stitch or over-sow some clover into them to get them up close to 100% and stop spreading nitrogen on them and then use this nitrogen that you’re saving on the rest of the farm that has little or no clover, then sit back, watch and make you own mind up about clover.
All in all a very interesting event.