‘Opportunities of Multi-Species Swards’ was the topic of the day at the recent Farm Walk organised by the Multi-Species Swards for Beef and Sheep European Innovation Partnership (EIP) group. Held on the farm of group member Dale Orr, Strangford Co. Down, the walk featured additional talks from AFBI and CAFRE and was coordinated by AgriSearch.
The Multi-species Swards for Beef and Sheep EIP group was formed to investigate the feasibility and practicality of incorporating multi-species swards (MSS) on NI commercial beef and sheep farms, increasing the knowledge of MSS establishment, management and utilisation and sharing all outcomes and results with the wider farming communities. The farm walk was the first to be hosted by the group , having only commenced the project in November of 2020, and provided an excellent opportunity for the group to share its progress and findings to date.
Attendees made their way around various informational stops on farm starting with an introduction to multi-species swards from Dr Denise Lowe, AFBI. Multispecies swards consist of grasses, legumes and herbs and can be simple consisting of just one of from each of these functional groups or it may contain many more. The more variable the environment and the more functions the swards will be used for may increase the requirement for a range of species. Denise shared with attendees the findings of a literature review conducted for the EIP group prior to establishing swards on farm. In summary, multi-species swards have been found to, in published research to date, require less fertiliser, be resilient drought conditions, have no detrimental effect on animal performance (in some cases bettering performance), improved mineral uptake and lower requirements for anthelmintics. The review, however, also found that multi-species swards require different sward management to realise these potential benefits and maintain the sward over a number of years. It is the intention of the EIP project going forward to assess these areas, highlighted by the research in the context of commercial farms in Northern Ireland.
An introduction to the farm, the multi-species swards established and experience to date was then given by Dale Orr, supported by his fellow EIP group members. Dale lambed 368 ewes and 73 ewe lambs in the Spring of 2021 and aims to maximise the utilisation of grazed grass on farm with minimum external inputs. To deliver this he has in recent years turned his attention to sward composition on farm, creating different species mixes for different purposes. The majority of swards on Dales farm are comprised of the more traditional white clover/perennial ryegrass (PRG) swards or red clover/ PRG silage swards but has added a number of multi-species swards within his grazing platform.
In 2018 Dale sowed approximately 25 acres with a 6 species mix (Intermediate PRG, Late PRG, White Clover, Red Clover, Chicory and Plantain) which he found, in a direct comparison with the white clover/ PRG sward (100 ewes with twins on each), to be beneficial for lamb finishing rates. Up to 12 weeks of age, on average, the lambs on the MSS sward grew 12% faster and, on average, went to the factory 26 days earlier. Dale has also trialled a pure herbal ley mix with no PRG (with the intended purpose of finishing lambs quickly with reduced need for anthelmintics) and as part of the EIP project, a drought resistant multispecies sward (Cocksfoot, Meadow Fescue, Timothy, Red Clover, White Clover, Plantain and Chicory) to further improve resilience on farm. The past four years have seen three very dry spring/summers in Co. Down and such trends are likely to remain or worsen in coming years. Attendees at the farm walk were able to visit both the Pure Herbal Ley mix and the Drought Resistant mix on the day.
Dr Francis Lively followed Dale with a summary of the multi-species sward research trials that have been taking place in Northern Ireland including an early look at some of the results arising from them. A series of plot trials have been taking place at AFBI Loughgall over the past two grazing seasons looking at both the component species within a MSS mix and comparisons of combination species mixes. From initial results individual herbs and clovers were found to have similar forage yields to pure grasses, whilst also offering the opportunity to reduce artificial Nitrogen input. In addition a MSS mix appears to be higher yielding than a number of typical PRG varieties. Results from the Super-G EcoSward trials on seven NI farms also back this up with cumulative and fresh weight yields in 2020 and 2021 being of comparable yield to pure PRG swards. Francis was also able to share with attendees the experience of MSS sward management at AFBI Hillsborough and the performance of the autumn born dairy origin calves that have been grazing it. MSS swards there have so far been shown to maintain or enhance animal performance relative to grass clover swards and also reduce worm burden in livestock.
Dr David Patterson, AFBI, then provided attendees with the final talk of the day and some food for thought if planning to establish MSS themselves. Ensuring a good establishment is a vital first step in the process and from the experience of the group so far a slight change in mindset from a typical PRG reseed is required to ensure success. David provided attendees with the answers to the key questions including which field(s) to sow, what species mix to select, what establishment method to use and what early management steps should be taken? There is no one species mix or establishment method, establishment time or management technique for all and the six farms in the EIP project have demonstrated that this year, with each taking a slightly different approach. One key consideration for all, however, is weed burden. Herbicides cannot be used on MSS and so this should be borne in mind when selecting fields and establishment methods. Some general rules for early management also apply. The crop should be ready to graze from 8-10 weeks post-establishment, but this will depend on growing conditions and so it is recommended to wait until herbs have at least 6-7 leaves per plant (plants fully established). Rotational grazing is also recommended to ensure the required plant density remains in the sward.
To wrap up the event Brian Finch, CAFRE, provided attendees with some take home messages from the event. The opportunities that MSS can provide are clear but as a sward they are clearly more challenging to establish and manage. The outputs of this EIP project and hopefully future research will no doubt provide much of the key information farmers will require to overcome these obstacles.
The full Farm Walk Handbook is now available on the AgriSearch website HERE as is the Literature Review and further information on the MSS for Beef and Sheep EIP project. Project updates are also regularly posted on the AgriSearch social media channels.