Protein-rich red clover is helping a Welsh livestock farm achieve a total cost of production of less than £3/kg deadweight in its lambs.
Dafydd and Glenys Jones have farmed organically at Maesllwyni since 2001, running a flock of 700 Texel and Aberfield cross ewes and 60 Hereford cross cattle on the upland holding.
Red clover has been a key component in their system since then, and increasingly so – in the last three years cattle have been fattened solely on it and lambs spend their last two weeks before slaughter grazing these leys.
By continually fixing nitrogen and releasing it when grazed and cut, red clover is not only an important source of feed for the livestock at Maesllwyni but for soil health and nutrition too.
At a recent Farming Connect open day at the farm, Mr Jones shared the knowledge he has gained from two decades of growing and feeding the crop.
Twenty hectares (ha) are grown within a rotation on 60ha of silage ground where fields are reseeded every 11 years.
By favouring varieties including AberChianti and AberClaret, leys have a five year longevity if looked after, including by not grazing in the winter.
The crop is established in May after ploughing. The farm’s top soil layer is shallow, therefore only the top 10cm are cultivated.
Mr Jones said: “The arable mix cleans the field up and creates a canopy to keep the weeds down." The silage is mainly fed to pregnant ewes in the last two weeks before lambing.
Red clover seed is established at a depth of just 5mm and the arable silage at 7.5-10cm. “We just let the arable seed sit on top of the furrows and find that it works fine," Mr Jones said.
Establishment had previously been in July but by getting the seed into the ground in May it gives red clover an advantage in that first year.
“The clover really starts to take off in the middle of the summer," Mr Jones added.
The soil is chain harrowed and rolled after seeding. A bulky first cut is taken in June, the forage wilted for 24 hours, and a second, higher quality cut at the beginning of August, with 48-hour wilting.
“We cut the red clover at a young stage for silaging, to prevent the stem becoming unpalatable for sheep," he said.
The first cut is clamped and the second preserved as big bales. A plastic conditioner is used on the mower to decrease leaf damage.
At over 18% protein, it is a protein-rich crop therefore it is established with companion grasses to provide fibre and energy to help retain that protein in the rumen for longer.
“Producing protein is one thing but you need to have something to absorb it," said Mr Jones.
There are other benefits too from plants and herbs included in the mix, he added.
“Trefoil has tannins which help keep livestock healthy and, as our soils are low in copper, chicory helps to bring that mineral up the soil structure."
The target analysis for red clover silage is at least 18% protein, metabolic energy (ME) greater than 11, a digestibility (D) value of over 70 and dry matter at more than 30%.
“Clover doesn’t have a lot of sugar in it so I use an additive to help with the ensiling and to quickly get the pH level down," said Mr Jones.
He doesn’t allow red clover to grow too high before turning sheep onto it. “The stem mustn’t get too thick because the sheep don’t like it when it gets to that stage."
For grazing, ewes and lambs get priority in the spring, to get lambs fattened and sold, and after 1 July it is cattle that get the first bite.
“We fatten lambs on red clover but not for too long otherwise they get too big and fat,’’ Mr Jones explained. They are grazed for two weeks and then weighed.
No concentrates are fed, largely thanks to the high-quality red and white clover silages and excellent grazing management.
This has helped decrease total cost of production to under £3/kg deadweight in lambs.
“In many systems it is the Single Farm Payment that is the profit but by keeping our costs down the lamb is the profit and the payment is a bonus," said Mr Jones.
Carbon footprint in his lamb system is 11.4kg C02/kg liveweight. Cattle are finished at 20 months – they can achieve daily liveweight gains of up to 1.6kg when grazing red clover.
Soil is regularly sampled - the red clover and herbal ley fields consistently at 6-6.5pH. Healthy soils are important for beneficial insects too, such as the dung beetle, which is adept at recycling nutrients.
Lynfa Davies, Farming Connect biodiversity specialist, advised farmers attending the open day that the dung beetle plays a vital role in livestock systems through dung pat management and parasite control.
“Having good populations of dung beetles is a ‘win win’ as it reduces parasite loads as well as getting nutrients underground to feed that next flush of grass, and they also provide feed for other wildlife and birds," she said.
Good populations of dung beetles also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production as they draw faecal matter down into the soil. They are very vulnerable to anthelmintics, in particular ivermectins.
Ms Davies said treating animals that have a proven parasite burden by using faecal egg counting to establish worm levels will promote and preserve dung beetle populations.
Grazing livestock all the year round is beneficial too as different species of dung beetle are prevalent at different times of the year.
“It doesn’t have to be prime cattle, perhaps some youngstock or sheep," explained Ms Davies.
“If there are farms in the locality that have stock in fields all the year round that will help too."