Establishing and maintaining red clover in grazing leys can be tricky, but hopefully breeding developments can help overcome this, says Robert Lawton.

Growing legumes on a conventional mixed farm with short rotations has many challenges and keeping red clover in swards is proving almost impossible.

Wiltshire dairy and arable farmer Robert Lawton has been including red clover in his one- or two-year Italian ryegrass cutting leys for more than 20 years. The 1400ha (3460 acres) farmed is on high-pH chalk soils which suit legumes well.

The cutting ley is sown in a short rotation with spring barley for seed. But the short rotation and requirement for a good crop of first cut to feed 250 dairy cows make keeping red clover in swards difficult, says Mr Lawton.

“Ideally, red clover needs a 7-8 year rotation. Without this, red clover suffers sclerotinia and eelworm problems and, coupled with high nitrogen, the suppression is almost total.” He also admits drilling it in August is not ideal, but drilling it separately to grass is uneconomic for a short term ley.

He reckons pest and disease issues may be yet to hit those growing red clover because it has become fashionable or because they have converted to organic, and thinks their views on it may change.

But he will continue to sow red clover and hopes it will offer advantages in some years. He also hopes breeding and management techniques will see tolerance to nitrogen, pests and diseases improve persistence, as has been successfully achieved with white clover.

A mix of broad-leaved white clovers is included in 3-5 year grazing leys. “With older varieties, when we put on spring nitrogen we saw no clover. Now they have changed dramatically, we put on high levels of spring nitrogen and clover still thrives and comes into its own in late summer,” says Mr Lawton.

Having grown many different legume crops, he thinks lucerne in particular has potential with climate change predictions and possible increases in feed protein prices.

  • Robert Lawton will be one of the speakers at the BGS Forage Legumes Conference – sponsored by British Seed Houses on 5 September. For details phone 01285 885 166 or see www.britishgrassland.com/bgs/calendar