A multi-species sward is a mixture of three or more species whose growth characteristics complement each other resulting in improved productivity compared to when each species is grown on their own.
Typically the species used, come from three plant groups, i.e., grasses, legumes, and herbs, with each species bringing different benefits to the sward.
When deciding on a mixture, soil type and local climate are important as some species are better suited than others to particularly wet or dry conditions.
Species suitable for wetter soils include timothy, birdsfoot trefoil and burnet, while species like cocksfoot, lucerne and chicory will thrive in light, dry soils.
Depending on your soil-type a mixture of the specialist species above and some all-rounders like perennial ryegrass, white clover and ribwort plantain would make for a very productive sward.
DLF’s 6-Species Herbal Ley contains perennial ryegrass, timothy, red and white clover, ribwort plantain and chicory. This mixture will provide a good balance of productivity and diversity across a range of soil types.
A more diverse sward can provide a range of additional benefits including forage quality, weather resilience and biodiversity. Sinclair McGill CastleHerb mixture contains 15 species: 5 grasses, 5 legumes and 5 herbs for maximum diversity effects.
Multi-species swards should be sown into a warm (~10°C), moist seedbed between April - September for optimal establishment.
One of the biggest attractions of multi-species swards is their potential to reduce the requirement for nitrogen fertiliser.
Achieving such an outcome on-farm will depend on maintaining a decent proportion (20-30%) of legumes in the sward. Regular grazing will help to encourage and maintain clover in the sward.
Large nitrogen applications will have a negative effect on legume persistence; however, a small amount in spring can be useful to feed grass and herb species before legumes begin nitrogen fixation in summer. In this case, up to 50kg, N/ha early in the growing season should not have a significant adverse effect on legume persistence. Alternatively, slurry can be applied during the early part of the year.
Multi-species swards can produce high yields of quality forage when managed correctly with potential for excellent animal performance.
The management guidelines for grazing multi-species swards are similar to grass swards with quality directly related to the proportion of leaf and stem. However, there are a couple of important points to remember when grazing multi-species swards.
For sheep and beef systems, the above management points can be adapted as follows:
It must be noted that herbs like ribwort plantain and chicory will likely never be as persistent as perennial ryegrass. The productive lifespan of these herbs in a mixture is between 3-5 years. This should not be a barrier to the use of multi-species swards, however.
The savings in nitrogen fertiliser alone should far outweigh the cost of oversowing herbs every 4 or 5 years. In addition, the benefits to animal and soil health and the wider environment are significant. At worst, you will be left with a grass-clover sward and a much lower fertiliser bill!
In light of a changing climate and changing policies, we must adapt how we farm, and multi-species swards have a considerable role to play.
Multi-species swards are often thought as better suited to grazing than silage production. While this may be the case, excellent quality silage high in protein and minerals can be produced from a multi-species sward.
The following tips will help to ensile your multi-species sward successfully:
*Multi-species Swards produce more quality forage than grass swards during the summer months due to the inclusion of legumes and herbs.
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DLF are the leading Multispecies supplier in Ireland