Cheviot Futures

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Advice from British Seed Houses - specialists in grass seed mixes and sward revitalisation

For the vast majority of livestock farmers, a greater focus on the efficient production and utilisation of homegrown forage will be an essential part of their future development and sustainability.

This is due to the inevitable and unrelenting increase in input prices - be that feed, fertiliser or fuel - and other factors such as adapting to more challenging weather patterns resulting from climate change.

The good news is that the opportunities and potential for higher production and greater efficiency from forage are increasing all the time, mainly through the development of new varieties but also as a result of the adoption of alternative systems and even the re-introduction of some more traditional methods.

Iain Eadie of specialist forage company British Seed Houses outlines the opportunities for livestock farmers by addressing four key areas.

When seeking to maximise a farms forage production potential the very first thing is to ensure that soils are in the best possible health, he says. Poor soil structure or depleted soil fertility can often be the cause of underperformance of grassland and forage crops in my experience.

The next step is to evaluate existing swards and take decisions on which fields to renovate or reseed. Even the best managed swards will deteriorate over time, and the relative productivity and response to fertiliser of sown species is far greater than that of the weed species that take over.

Once decisions to renovate or renew old swards have been taken, the next key stage is to assess the best replacement options. Start by deciding what the primary use of the sward will be - whether for cutting, grazing, or dual purpose for example - and then ensure varieties included in mixtures are highly ranked on the independently compiled recommended lists.

Finally, I would advise all livestock farmers to be aware of alternative forage crop options that can be used to improve overall forage output. This may be species such as white clover or perennial chicory for example that would be incorporated into grassland swards to good effect, or stand-along crops such as forage brassicas or red clover. Alternative forage crops such as forage brassicas are not only good sources of forage - often productive when grass swards may not be - but they can also be used as grassland break crops in a rotation

1.Soil Assessment

Compaction, smearing and surface capping are all potential consequences of poaching by animals or damage from machinery forced to work in less-than-ideal conditions.

Firstly, check soil condition in at-risk areas by digging out a spade-size soil section to look for tell-tale signs, which are as follows:

-Soil does not break easily in your hands
- The sod splits horizontally
- Grass roots do not penetrate more than six inches or are growing horizontally
- Evidence of brown rusty deposits or dull grey patches (water-logging)
- Little or no evidence of earth worms

Above ground, look for:

- Standing water
- A reddish tinge to grass leaves (usually in spring)
- Rushes, marsh thistles, and other wet-loving species
- Scorch marks from urine patches

Corrective action should be specific to the problem.
Carry out soil nutrient testing concurrently and rectify through fertiliser and/or liming.

2. Sward Assessment
The following areas should be assessed at each or around ten randomly selected areas in a pasture and scored accordingly.

Ground cover:
Make an assessment of overall sward density or the proportion of foliage to bare soil. Target ground cover = 85 � 90%

Perennial ryegrass content:
Make an assessment of how much of the grass content of the sward is perennial ryegrass (or other originally sown grass species such as timothy) as opposed to weed grasses. Target for sown species content = 85% +

Weed content:
Make an assessment of the total weed content (include all non-sown species, not just grass weeds). Target weed content = 10% or less

Clover content:
For grass and clover swards, make an assessment of the clover content as a proportion of the total sward. Target clover content = 20-30%

3. Grass Mixture Selection

Factors to consider when selecting your grass mixtures include the following:
- The main use for the sward (grazing, cutting, dual purpose?)
- The desired productive life (short, medium or long term?)
- Do you require extended seasonal production?
- Is your location drought susceptible?
- Include the best available and most suitable varieties in your mixture
o Are they highly ranked on the NIAB or SAC Recommended Lists?
o Do varieties offer the best combination of yield and quality?
o Are heading dates appropriate for your system and compatible?
o Are varieties resistant to your local disease challenges?

If in doubt, seek specialist advice on mixture composition and variety selection.

4. Alternative Forage Options

Mainly for grazing:
- Inclusion of companion species for ryegrasses such as white clover or Puna II perennial chicory.
- Forage brassicas such as Swift or Redstart for filling summer grazing gaps or out-wintering.
- Mixtures for finishing lambs such as red clover with ryegrass and Puna II perennial chicory.

Mainly for cutting
- Red clover with perennial or hybrid ryegrass.
- Lucerne.
- Forage maize.

How can productive grassland be managed to reduce the effects of drought conditions?
Across the UK, periods of excessive rainfall and drought are increasing in frequency and intensity due to the changing climate, leading to significant losses of forage yield and compromising grass persistance.

The DefraLINK programme LK0688 at IBERS is aiming to increase the water use efficiency of our major cultivated grasses.

'Precision Breeding' work with Italian ryegrass has already achieved an 88% improvement in yield by incorporating selected drought resistant genes from related fescue species.
The next objective is to bring about a similar level of enhancement in the water use efficiency of Perennial ryegrass - the most commonly used productive grassland species - through incorporation of the same fescue-derived genes.

Information taken from the leaflet 'Grass roots for improved soil structure and hydrology', Mike Humphreys, IBERS, University of Aberystwyth.

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