Two years into trialling lucerne and dairy farmer James Foote has successfully reduced his bought-in feed costs by 8.7p a cow a day by producing a quality home-grown protein.
Chynoweth Farm in Truro, Cornwall, currently a DairyCo-BGS demo farm, is putting lucerne research trials into practice in the field.
“Being part of the demo means we’ve paid more interest in home-grown forage production costings. It’s all too easy to become blinkered into dairy and milk production costs and not realise that forage can haemorrhage cash, just like cows can,” says Mr Foote.
And with the first two cuts this season averaging 47% dry matter (DM) at 22.8% crude protein and 10.2MJ/kg DM metabolisable energy, Mr Foote believes he may’ve found the optimal forage to feed alongside maize, grass and winter wheat, due to its positive effects on intakes and rumen health.
Charlotte Evans, BGS technical project manager, explains that its high protein and low starch content of lucerne means it compliments maize, which is the opposite, and yet they both suit similar growing conditions.
The 290 head of Holstein Friesians have been housed year round since 2010 after a series of wet years meant they were ruining fields.
“Our ground didn’t suit a grazing system; the way the land was situated and the soil type couldn’t cope with extensive grazing. The herd hasn’t looked back since we moved indoors.”
The milking cows currently receive 4kg DM a head of lucerne silage as part of a TMR.
As Mr Foote continues to expand the lucerne acreage, the inclusion rate should increase to around 7kg DM a head or 20% of the forage intake.
The introduction of lucerne into the diet has already reduced the amount of bought in rapeseed and soya blend by 0.6kg a head. This equates to a 8.7p a cow a day saving, based on an average protein cost of £290/t.
From the 10,000 litres a cow average, Mr Foote says 32% of this comes from forage, but he is aiming for 40% with the help of lucerne. He also believes it has improved cow health, firming up the dung and acting as a rumen buffer has stabilised the diet like Alka-Seltzer for cows.
Mr Foote farms 174ha with his brother Robert and parents Simon and Caroline, of which 97ha are owned and 77ha are on cropping licenses. After trying other home-grown protein sources with marginal success, he believes lucerne is a good option, as it should last for the duration of the tenancy on the rented ground.
“It compares favourably with other high-protein crops such as a lupin cereal mix or clover in terms of ease of management and production,” he says.
Mr Foote first sowed 17ha of lucerne at a seed rate of 25kg/ha, costing £170/ha, at the end of April 2013, adding a further 7ha in April 2014. He is planning to establish another 10ha next season.
“It does look expensive in the first year, adding up the cost of seed-bed preparation and the seed itself for just two marginal cuts that are half the potential yield.
“But by the second season it’s so easy to grow well, it looks after itself over winter and is ready for the first cut in mid-June. You should get four decent cuts plus a tidy-up cut in the years after, we’re future proofing a proportion of our protein for the next five years,” he adds.
Growing lucerne is not without its challenges, explains Ms Evans. Problems can occur with crop establishment in colder wetter conditions and as the crop is autotoxic, it’s pointless overseeding to repair “bare patches” as the existing crop releases toxins that prevent other legumes growing.
“It is also best suited to systems where cows do not graze it, as like other legumes, it can cause bloat if stock are allowed to gorge.
“Cutting also needs to be managed well to preserve the delicate crown (growing point) of the plant. At least 7cm should be left when mowing,” adds Ms Evans.
Another point to be aware of is the weed burden in establishing fields, says DairyCo extension officer Becky Miles.
“Weeds can be a problem, but don’t be put off. After the first cut, lucerne will smother them out,” she says.
This was certainly the case for Mr Foote who controlled weeds with a weed wiper, which although effective at reducing the initial challenge proved unnecessary, as the lucerne out-competed the weeds after the first cut.
“In the first summer, it’s putting everything into its roots, but after that it bushes out and smothers weeds.
“We take each cut around five weeks after the previous. This seems to give the right compromise between yield and protein content.”
But lucerne has additional benefits other than rapid regrowth and high yields, says Ms Evans.
“It is visibly improving soil quality. Having a good soil structure and deep rooting both enhances nutrient uptake and reduces the risk of run-off.
In conclusion, Mr Foote’s aim is to provide his cows with a consistent high-quality diet all year round and he believes lucerne is now a crucial part of the TMR.
He adds: “It is definitely also worth considering to help meet the CAP greening requirements, provided the right variety is used for the climate and soil type.”
James Foote’s tips for a successful harvest
- Previously arable land and spring sowing were key to good establishment on our farm.
- Analyse your soil; ours was phosphorus at index 4 and potash at index 3 pre-drilling so bagged P and K fertiliser wasn’t required.
- Nitrogen fertiliser wasn’t needed either as lucerne is a nitrogen-fixing crop.
- A tilthy seed-bed is vital – we sprayed herbicide, ploughed and subsoiled to a depth of 18in.
- Soil pH was corrected to pH7 with sea sand between cultivation passes.
- Depth of cultivation is important for drought resistance, some plants have a 1m tap root and grew well in drier conditions when our grass went to seed.
- After each cut, 27.5cu m/ha of slurry is applied via a dribble bar.
- To preserve protein content, use a rake with a gentle sweeping action within 24 hours of cutting to “row-up” and avoid leaf shatter.
- Harvest about three to four days later after wilting with a forage wagon.
Lucerne is not suitable for colder wetter conditions; use the right variety for your climate and soil.