THE price of fertiliser this year has led to many farmers considering whet-her multi-species swards (also known as herbal leys) are right for them. On a recent Yara webinar, Philip Cosgrave, Yara Grassland Agronomist, pictured, discussed this topic with Damian McAllister and Dr Thomas Moloney from DLF (Ireland) and asked what benefits multi-species swards can potentially offer.
Multi-species swards (MSS) are becoming increasingly popular within beef, sheep and dairy enterprises due to their diverse nutritional profile and lower fertiliser requirements.
“There are a lot of benefits, depending on where you’re coming from in terms of production,” says Thomas. “Compared to perennial ryegrass, MSS contain yield over the year while needing much less fertiliser. In some cases, no N fertiliser applications are required at all, which obviously makes a huge difference in cost.”
In addition, animals respond well to these mixtures due to the diversity and different mineral profiles, resulting in increased performance. There also aren’t any palatability issues with livestock grazing these swards.
“We all see a positive response in terms of biodiversity,” says Damian. “With MSS, you end up seeing a lot more pollinators. More pollinators and more birds all benefit farm biodiversity and soil health benefits are likely because of the different rooting nature and depth of the individual species grown. In addition, you have the potential to see an increase in soil carbon sequestration.”
“You get a better sense of wellbeing in yourself that you’re adopting a more natural approach, all while improving results.”
As soils differ across both Ireland and Great Britain, are MSS more suitable to certain soil types? According to Thomas, the diversity within MSS is what makes them so resilient, no matter the conditions:
“There are often six different species in there, all which have their own optimal conditions in terms of climate or soil. If you think about what’s within each sward – perhaps Timothy, plantain, chicory, perennial ryegrass and both red and white clovers – each is different. For example, Timothy works in slightly harsh and colder wetter soils. Chicory is more drought-tolerant and prefers warmer weather. That diversity is your insurance – a large proportion of the mixture will thrive in any given location.”
For conventional grazing sys-tems that may only be using perennial ryegrass, there is also scope to use a portion of paddocks for MSS.
It’s also possible to use multi-species swards for silage, though it can be trickier than perennial ryegrass swards because of the lower dry matter content.
“Your best bet for value is probably as a grazing mixture,” says Thomas. “There should be no issue producing silage if the weather is right.
“Don’t be afraid to put cattle into grazing if the paddocks are a bit strong,” adds Damian. “The cattle will do a good job grazing that out. It’s a lot cheaper if they can eat it themselves.”
Nutrition is the building block of any crop. For MS, Damian and Thomas advise maintaining soils at the optimum soil P and K index and a soil pH between 6.2 and 6.5 as a sweet spot: “As long as we have the building blocks in place, all those different species perform at their best,” says Thomas.
“I would advise rolling before sowing,” says Damian. “Roll, sow, and roll again.
“You can also direct drill herbal leys which helps act as a weed barrier while minimising soil disturbance, assuming that’s right for your particular farm.”
In terms of establishment, May is the ideal month and it’s best to avoid a dry spell where possible.
“The earlier you get it in, the better the roots get down,” says Damian.
“Doing this means the crop can go into winter as a resilient and established sward.”
Livestock farmers who are weighing their options in light of high fertiliser prices should consider whether MSS could work for their farm. Alongside their resilience and more en-vironmentally friendly impact, livestock performance can also improve on MSS.
“Each component of a MSS is bringing something new,” adds Thomas. “For humans, we’d survive if we just ate potatoes for the rest of our lives. By bringing in other plants, our diet is improved and we become healthier. It’s the same for animals. You’re covering all your bases with diversity in the ley – it’s the whole picture of what drives animal performance all within one sward.”
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