There is huge farmer interest in both multispecies swards and red clover silage swards.

In the context of record fertiliser prices and the expectation that these swards can grow similar yields to conventional grass swards without applied nitrogen, it’s little wonder farmers are interested in what some are dubbing miracle crops.

The establishment of both red clover swards and multispecies swards is also being promoted by the Irish Government, with a grant of €50 off a 12kg bag of both red clover and multispecies seed offered to farmers earlier this year.

Considering that all the dairy and beef systems’ research work on multispecies by Teagasc is still ongoing at both Johnstown Castle and Moorepark, it is somewhat unusual that the Department saw fit to promote and provide financial aid for multispecies before the trials were complete and results published.

It is noteworthy that there is no support for establishing perennial ryegrass and white clover, even though the benefits of these swards are well proven.

What are multispecies?

So what are multispecies and why are farmers and others so interested in them? Essentially, multispecies are a mixture of species such as grasses, herbs and legumes growing together in the one sward.

Typically, the grasses are perennial ryegrass and Timothy, the herbs sown are chicory and plantain and the legumes are red and white clover, although other species are often included in these mixtures too.

The first advantage of multispecies is that the high proportion of legumes will fix enough nitrogen for high pasture growth, plus the species with different rooting depths will utilise nitrogen and other nutrients and also moisture from different levels within the soil.

This is expected to reduce nutrient losses and help with drought tolerance, as has been found in some plot studies conducted at Johnstown Castle and elsewhere.

Higher animal performance from multispecies swards has been observed in sheep grazing multispecies swards at UCD. Higher cattle performance is also being observed at UCD on multispecies swards, but this study is ongoing, similar to studies on cattle and dairy cows in Teagasc.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that persistence, or lack thereof seems to be a bit of an issue with multispecies swards. Chicory, plantain and red clover seem to be the first to die out of the sward, typically after two or three seasons.

When these species die out, the sward is then dominated by grasses and white clover, which is not a bad outcome.

There is also some evidence to say there is a residual benefit to multispecies even after some of the species have died out. This relates to soil health, improved drainage and less compaction as a result of the differing rooting depths, particularly of red clover and chicory.

Red clover

Unlike multispecies swards, red clover swards have been around for a long time, but are not as common in Ireland as they are in other countries. This is partly due to the long-term nature of leys in Ireland, whereas in Britain and elsewhere, red clover is easier to fit into shorter-term ley rotations, perhaps alongside arable crops.

Red clover silage swards are a combination of perennial ryegrass, red clover and white clover.

Even though both fix atmospheric nitrogen, red clover is a very different plant to white clover.

Red clover can fix up to 300kg N/ha. \ Donal O' Leary

For one thing, it has an erect growth habit and a tap root, unlike white clover which grows along the surface and has stolons.

What makes red clover different from white clover is also its downfall. The fact that it has an erect growing habit and a high growing point means that if it is cut below the growing point the plant will die.

It has a much shorter lifespan than white clover anyway, generally lasting for four or five seasons before the majority of the red clover plants will have died out.

At that stage, the sward should hopefully be dominated by just grass and white clover.

Because of the high growing point of red clover, it technically cannot be grazed by cattle.

While technically true, some farmers do take a light grazing off red clover at the back-end of the year but ensure that there is not too much grazing pressure on it.

Generally speaking, most farmers aim for three cuts of silage, starting in early May and cutting again every five or six weeks.

Avoiding compaction or poaching is a must, as this will dramatically lower the lifespan of red clover on affected areas

The final cut is often the trickiest, taking place as it does in late autumn and early winter. For this reason, preservation and wilting is tricky so some farmers try grazing or zero-grazing the last cut.

However, avoiding compaction or poaching is a must, as this will dramatically lower the lifespan of red clover on affected areas. It’s important to state also that red clover silage should not be tedded, as this can remove the leaves from the stalks and without the leaf you won’t have the high quality.

Farmers who have fed red clover silage in the past generally report high animal performance. Red clover silage is higher in crude protein than conventional grass-only silage.

Given the fact that red clover can fix up to 300kg N/ha, there should be no requirement for additional nitrogen to be applied, whether that’s in the form of chemical nitrogen or slurry. Some suggest that a small amount of nitrogen in spring is advisable, but considering that the intended use is silage, early spring growth is probably less important.

Phosphorus and potash will still be required, at levels equal to or even higher than those needed for conventional grass-only silage crops.

Seed selection

With such a big increase in the demand for red clover, the availability of quality seed is an issue.

With no Irish recommended list for red clover, farmers are instead advised to look at the English or Scottish recommended lists when choosing varieties.

Having said that, some seed companies are selling red clover varieties that are not on either list and are reporting strong farmer satisfaction with them.

Irish-bred variety Fearga, which is on the English and Scottish recommended lists, is expected to be commercially available by the middle of next year.

Aberclaret, which is also on the English and Scottish recommended lists, is in short supply.

In terms of timing, it is getting late in the year now for sowing either multispecies or red clover.

According to Mary McEvoy from Germinal, late-sowing crops tend to have less root reserves heading into the winter which can affect their long-term persistency.

Red clover has a much larger seed than white clover so sowing rate is much higher, at 4kg per acre of red clover.

Farmers will typically sow 1kg of white clover and around 9kg of perennial ryegrass per acre.