CLOVER CUTS N BILLS & DOESNT KNOCK YIELDS
In 1992 John Downess farm
became a MMB clover study
farm, but how does he feel
about clover six years later.
Jessica Buss finds out
FERTILISER bills have been halved by increasing reliance on clover in grass leys, a saving of £6000/year, without hindering improvements in herd performance over the last seven years.
So says John Downes, whose 110-cow herd at The Farm, Longnor, Shewsbury, Shropshire, now averages 6359 litres, with 4821 litres from forage and concentrate use low at just 800kg/cow/year.
At the start of the MMB clover study Mr Downes was keen to improve use of clover because the farms stocking rate had fallen when a new block of land was taken on. He also felt that quota was restricting, with about 0.5m litres, and maximising margin/litre was the most profitable way forward.
In Aug 1991, cows averaged 5234 litres, with 3253 litres from forage, and were fed 980kg of concentrate. Stocking rate was 2.08 cows a ha (0.84/acre) and margin over feed a litre 16.94p at a milk price of 19.18p/litre.
Now the margin over purchased feed is 21.05p/litre and £1338 a cow at a milk price of 22.58p/litre, reflecting a 0.7p/litre saving on feed costs.
"We didnt change inclusion levels of clover, but reduced nitrogen and placed more confidence in clover. We lacked the confidence before, and were applying nitrogen every month. We needed encouragement from SACs John Bax, to let clover prove it could work." Clover content peaked at about 50% of the sward during the study.
Three year figures
After three years, at the end of the official study, cows averaged 5538 litres with 3323 litres from forage – having peaked in the best year to produce 3800 litres from forage – concentrates fed were 1096kg.
Most cow grazing is four-year leys following winter barley – which gives an early entry for grass seeds in late July or August. Even before the study 1.25-2.5kg/ha (0.5-1kg/acre) of Enzyme clover seed mix from Aberystwyth was included in grass mixtures. Seed rates did not change during the study or afterwards.
Weed control has been achieved thanks to the arable crops in the rotation. Occasionally a few docks appear, he admits. But chickweed has been seen less since the farms sheep flock has been used to graze down swards tightly.
Mr Downes believes sheep grazing in winter has also helped maintain clover in swards and has prevented it being shaded out in spring.
Clover is slow to grow in spring, so Mr Downes applies slurry and nitrogen to encourage grass growth in early season. Grazing leys receive some slurry up until March and 125kg/ha (1 bag/acre) of 27.10.0. Silage ground receives 313kg/ha (2.5 bags/acre) of 28.12.20 for first cut. Fertiliser use averages 80kg N/ha (64 units/acre) on grassland, saving £6000 a year on fertiliser.
Mr Downes is concerned about bloat when cows are grazing, so he set stocks. "Rotational grazing increases the risk of bloat. We lost one cow with bloat and dont want to drench cows in the parlour every day as they do in New Zealand.
"When set stocked, cows always go out to the same amount of grazing and the proportion of clover increases slowly as the percentage increases in the sward."
Cows start the grazing season on 16ha (40 acres) of old pasture, typically in mid-April because land is wet. The grazing area increases to over an acre a cow as the silage areas are introduced for grazing.
But cows do not go short of grass. Silage fields are strip grazed in preference to buffer feeding to maintain sward heights. The introduction of more grass depends on Mr Downes judgement of sward height and whether the herd is achieving the projected daily output. It is better to offer more grass sooner rather than later, he says.
In summer when milk price increases and grass often suffers farm drought, maize silage is buffer fed. Maize supplements the clover grazing leys well, says Mr Downes.
Cow breeding has also improved since the start of the clover study, when all cows were Friesians. Now most cows are half Holstein, and heifers three-quarters Holstein. He aims to select sires which produce cows carring more body condition than most pure Holsteins.
Mr Downes is confident about clovers ability to grow and it will continue to be part of his farming system. He is also now considering organic milk, lamb and cereal production. He feels able to cope without fertiliser or pesticides because the farm can rotate crops and grow clover. But the change to organic will mean having to slot seed clover into permanent pasture which, he says, is more difficult than establishing a clover ley.
Clover is slow to grow in spring, so John Downes applies nitrogen to ensure a good first cut of silage.
John Downes gradually increases the grazing area to over an acre a cow as the silage areas are introduced for grazing.
• Avoid monthly N applications.
• Use bag N in early season.
• Wilt grass cut for silage.