About two years ago I decided to experiment with multi-species swards (MSS). At the time, there were a lot of very positive vibes coming from farmers who were using MSS, but very little information on performance in wet conditions further west. I decided that I would have to try some to see if it was as good as all the hype.

I started with a very simple mix of two ryegrass varieties, two herbs and two clovers. With a second year now under my belt, I am in a position to highlight the positives and negatives. I have also visited a number of other farmers who are experimenting with MSS (in drier conditions than me).

The good points

The MSS can certainly grow a lot of forage with no artificial fertiliser applied. This year I didn’t put any artificial fertiliser on my MSS and it grew between 1t and 2t more forage per hectare than my grass-only swards.

I also did my own trial to see if there were any anthelmintic benefits from the herbs in the MSS. Dung samples were taken from the cattle on the MSS and a grass/clover sward throughout the year. There was a definite benefit, and the cattle on the MSS showed no signs of roundworm burden at any stage through the grazing period.

I still had to dose cattle for lungworm, but, overall, I probably saved two or three doses in the year.

The other real positive was in the soil structure (due to the deep rooting herbs) and soil biodiversity, with a massive increase apparent in earthworm population.


However, it isn’t all good news. Although the MSS grew more forage, I would estimate that utilisation was down by as much as 20%.

In wet weather (which we had a lot of this year), the cattle went into very heavy covers and after 24 hours they had dirtied the forage and refused to eat any more. There was a lot of wastage (although some will say that’s good).

You would assume the improvement in soil structure would have helped water infiltration, allowing the ground to dry out faster. The opposite was the case.

The soil had a loose structure and when it was wet it trampled easily and water couldn’t get away. There was no mat of grass to hold cattle up, so in wet conditions cattle poached deep into the soil.


As for cattle performance, I couldn’t see any difference. I regularly weighed the cattle on the MSS and my grass/clover sward, and results were basically the same. But given savings in fertiliser and dosing, it should be seen as a good outcome for the MSS.

I am also hopeful that the improved soil structure and worm activity will lead to more carbon being stored in my soils, but as of yet I haven’t been able to prove this.


Looking ahead, there are two big issues to contend with. The weeds are something that you have to tolerate. There’s really nothing you can do. When the cattle get used to eating herbs they start to eat some of the weeds (mainly docks), but you will still have plenty coming through.

However, persistency is the one that is really annoying. After two years the herbs are almost gone. Some experts argue that it’s okay because they have done their job, and you are left with a good grass/clover sward. I’m not really sure.

On my travels around the country, everyone else is having the same problem. Some on really dry ground are maybe getting three years. Others are effectively cheating by over-sowing more seed every year (I’m not saying this is wrong – in fact, it might just be the answer).

I’m not completely writing off MSS, however, it’s not as simple as managing a grass sward. But if you can do it well, it has the potential to yield some reward.

Read more

Having another go at red clover silage

Watch: my experience with a multi-species sward