2021: The year of the Multi-species Swards

Multi-species swards have been the story of 2021 with farmers across the country looking to improve production efficiency.

Despite a couple of gaps in our knowledge of these swards, farmers have been keen to try some for themselves and see what all the fuss is about.

After speaking to a lot of farmers on the topic this year we have learned much about establishing and managing multi-species swards from practical experiences on-farm.

In an article in the summer edition of Organic Matters, I outlined the range of species from each of the grass, legume and herb families that can be included in your multi-species sward mixture. Of course, the legumes and less familiar herbs generate a lot of discussion and intrigue, but we must not forget the important role that grasses play in these diverse swards.

Throughout the year grasses will provide ground cover that legumes and herbs, by their nature, cannot. More importantly, grass species like timothy and perennial ryegrass start growing early in the season while legumes and herbs require warmer temperatures before coming to life.

It is the grass component of a multi-species sward that will provide the bulk of forage between February and April when livestock demand is high. Timothy in particular is well adapted to cool, wet conditions and thus has a very early start in spring. Perennial ryegrass is the most studied and widely sown forage species in Ireland.

Decades of breeding has developed a large portfolio of varieties each with a set of agronomic traits that dictate their suitability to different management regimes. The Pasture Profit Index (PPI) places an economic value on a number of these traits including spring growth.

Strong spring growth should be at the top of your checklist for selecting perennial ryegrass varieties to include in your multi-species sward mixture.

To that end, DLF varieties Nashota (Late Tetraploid) and Nifty (Intermediate Diploid) have excellent spring growth scores. Nashota is one of our flagship varieties with an overall ranking near the top of the PPI.

DLF are delighted to be able to offer certified organic seed of these quality varieties to organic farmers in 2023.

Weeds are one of the primary concerns of farmers thinking about sowing a multi-species sward.

Thankfully, research and on-farm experience have shown that once successfully established, competition from the sown species does an excellent job of excluding weed species. If we consider the relationship between chicory and the dock, for example.

They are two broad-leaved plants, possibly long-lost cousins, with very similar anatomy both above- and below-ground. They have evolved to survive at very similar locations in the sward. If we can get chicory established in our multi-species sward first then the risk of dock invasion is significantly reduced.

The seedling docks cannot compete with the established chicory. We have seen many examples of this competition across the country this year. Small outbreaks of annual weeds like chickweed, lamb’s quarter and mustard can be grazed in most cases.

However, in more serious instances mowing or topping may be required and eventually the sown species will establish.

A common question asked by farmers is ‘can multi-species swards be ensiled?’

Silage is the primary source of winter feed being produced on 82% of farms and after grazed grass it is the second most important crop produced in Ireland. As well as producing a vital feedstuff, silage making is an important management tool which allows surplus spring and summer forage be conserved for use in winter when forage demand exceeds supply.

Although we recommend multi-species swards for grazing it is possible to produce excellent quality silage from these swards. Because of the high clover content multi-species swards have a high buffering capacity and a high moisture content – traits that do not lend themselves to preservation as silage.

Research from Teagasc and University College Dublin (UCD) has shown that once the crop is dry it will preserve well. A good strategy is to treat your multi-species silage crop like a red clover crop. It is important to cut the crop in good dry conditions and allow to wilt for 24 hours.

Handling of the crop by tedding and raking should be kept to a minimum to avoid loss of the high quality leaf portion. If handling be sure to do so slowly.

Preliminary data from UCD Lyons Estate Research Farm is showing excellent over-winter performance from cattle fed multi-species versus grass-white clover silages.

As the number of organic farmers in Ireland grows we are seeing more and more interest in quality organic forage mixtures. DLF offer 100% organic grass-clover and red clover seed while 2022 will see the introduction of a +70% organic multi-species mixture to our organic range.

See www.dlfseeds.ie for more information and contact details.

Written by Dr. Thomas Moloney, DLF for Organic Matters Magazine Ireland

For more information on organic farming visit https://www.irishorganicassociation.ie/

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