10 September 1999

MASTER TOUCH WITH CLOVER

Establish clover swards well and, with careful management,

productivity is guaranteed, as one Glos producer

testifies. Sue Rider reports

SUCCESSFUL sheep production depends on clover at Abbey Home Farm which began conversion to organic production in 1991 and is now fully so.

Farm manager John Newman explains that they have two demands on clover; to provide grazing and forage crops in spring/summer, and grazing for tupping the 700 mainly Scotch Mule, May lambing ewes in December.

Achieving these targets depends on successful establishment of clover on the 625ha (1544 acre) mixed farm at Preston Field Barn, Cirencester.

"Establishing clover well is the key to securing good production," says Mr Newman. "This depends on correct timing and good seedbed preparation."

He prefers to drill in late summer/early autumn – and no later than the first week of September.

"The earlier we get on, the better establishment is – drill too late and you see a reduction in clover."

To prepare for autumn sowing, the ground is ploughed, pressed and cultivated. "I like to drill the grass/clover seed so I know its in the ground. We use an old air drill, taking the pressure off the coulters so were just scratching the surface. Then its flat rolled to create a firm, fine, compact seedbed. The firmer the seedbed the better clover gets going."

While spring establishment puts the clover at risk if it becomes dry, under-sowing into cereals provides a nurse crop to protect the forage underneath.

Timing for under-sowing spring cereals depends on whether they whole-crop or harvest cereals. "When we harvest as whole-crop, we drill the cereal in late March/ early April, but at a reduced three-quarter seed-rate; when were taking the cereals through to harvest, we drill the grass/clover mix four weeks later."

Well established autumn sown leys are first grazed by sheep in late winter or early spring; those under-sown in spring will be grazed in the autumn.

"We could use these leys for tupping in December, but they shouldnt be grazed too hard in their first year to prevent damage to the young sward."

However, it is important to graze them reasonably tightly. "Fail to control the grasses and they will swamp out the clover which needs light to grow.

"Aim to avoid going into winter with proud clover prone to frost damage," he says.

Older leys ear-marked for tupping have been grazed by the dairy herd and can be closed from September as the cows are housed. "Were relying on autumn growth of grass and clover to secure 10-12cm swards for tupping."

Clover swards being grazed by cattle this year will provide clean grazing for sheep next spring.

These leys will be grazed down by cattle to 3-4cm (1-2in) and closed from October.

"Its a fine balance between grazing tightly enough to remove any surplus grass prone to winter kill, but not overgrazing and damaging the clovers stolons – which would prevent the clover from growing back so quickly."

Some of the clover swards closed in October will be reserved for grazing by ewes and lambs in May. White clover/grass swards (see table) provide most of the grazing, while the higher productivity red goes for cutting. The aftermaths provide clean grazing in time to finish May-born lambs.

Lucerne/red clover/grass leys are also used for finishing lambs and silage.

New to the grazing mix is the medium-leaved white clover AberHerald – chosen for its cold tolerance and early spring growth. Chicory provides palatability and being deep rooting is a good mineral source; Trefoil contains tannin so has anti-bloating properties and the ryegrasses are not too early because clover takes a while to grow in spring.

Muck is spread on the area to be cut from March to kick-start growth. In the past its also been put onto the May lambing area in March to keep the grass growing. But Mr Newman feels that scald in stock on lambing fields could be linked to muck, and now plans to apply it much earlier to reduce foot trouble. &#42