Archive: Lucerne at DairyCo Research Day

Published 24 October 14

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Even ex-hurricane Gonzalo couldn’t stop over 100 dairy farmers attending the DairyCo Research Day on Tuesday (21 October) at Cheshire dairy farmer, Alistair Cliff’s farm, near a very wet and windy Chester.

The day brought together researchers and farmers to hear about the latest DairyCo research and discuss the emerging findings.

Professor Chris Reynolds, from the University of Reading and Paul Westaway, who runs a pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd, and finishes Angus x Holstein Friesian heifers on his farm in Gloucestershire, talked about the benefits of lucerne, how to manage the crop and the DairyCo research work being undertaken at the moment.

Research Day Lucerne 3

Photo 1 Paul Westaway (left) and Professor Chris Reynolds 

“Lucerne is hugely popular in Europe and the USA, due to its high protein content, its drought resistance and because you don’t need to apply nitrogen fertiliser to the crop,” explained Professor Reynolds.

“DairyCo has been funding a four-year programme to help better understand the potential for lucerne on British dairy farms. Studies are looking at the effect of time of establishment, the use of cover crops with lucerne, as well as the effects of it in dairy cow diets.”

Paul Westaway, who grows lucerne, explained how he establishes and harvests lucerne:

“We drill in early May when the soil temperature has reached about 12°C. You do need to wait for the soil to really warm up before you plant, but this does mean you can get a cut of grass off before you drill. The soil pH needs to be 6 and you need a really clean seed bed, as lucerne does not like being sprayed.

“Lucerne can seem a bit of a challenge in the first year, when you only get one or two cuts. But since that first year we’ve had four cuts a year, and this year we’re trying to work out what to do with a fifth cut!

 “We undersowed our lucerne crop with Timothy that first year and, from then on, have tried undersowing with triticale and spring barley. We find that lucerne grown under triticale is thicker than spring barley and gives more time for the lucerne to establish itself, before weeds become a problem.

“I think that when a third of the field is in flower is the right time to harvest. We time the first cut of lucerne with the heading date for our ryegrass so we can ensile it in the clamp in layers. After that, the dates don’t seem to tie up and, although the second cut of lucerne may go into the clamp, subsequent cuts go into big bales. Don’t over wilt the crop, as you can get leaf shatter, and make sure you don’t cut the crop too low.

 “I treat lucerne as an arable crop and look at it as if I was growing bags of corn. With this year’s analysis coming back at 35% DM, 12.6 ME and 19.3% protein, it works out at £84/t/DM on the yard, and I can’t buy or grow cake for that price. It also has the advantage of being counted as a greening crop.

“Cows are meant to eat lucerne and there are some great hidden benefits from it. There is a great scratch factor in the gut, stimulating rumen activity, cud rate and saliva production.

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Photo 2 Farmers at the DairyCo Research Day examining lucerne

Professor Reynolds continued, “Lucerne is drought tolerant, with a deep root development. It can be slow to establish, and is auto toxic, which means it produces a chemical to stop other lucerne seeds germinating in the area surrounding the plant. This means you need to leave fields for one to two years before you replant with lucerne.

“Although you do not need to apply nitrogen fertiliser, you do need to soil test every year to keep an eye on P and K. Make sure you don’t cut the crop too low when harvesting, as it will affect the crown. Lucerne needs a longer length than grass in order for regrowth to get established.

“Average annual yields for lucerne in the UK are between 10 – 12 tonnes of DM/ha. On average, you should get three to four cuts and the lifespan of the plant is between five and six years. Crude proteins levels can reach around 20% but they drop as flowering progresses.

“As the stem develops, acid detergent fibre (ADF) increases and digestibility decreases. This is when the positive effects of the scratch factor of lucerne come into play, stimulating rumination and saliva generation.

“From the ongoing DairyCo work on lucerne we’ve been able to ascertain that getting good establishment of lucerne after autumn sowing is very hard. The competition from weeds becomes too much for the plant as growth rates are that much lower in the autumn.

“As well as trials looking at establishing lucerne, cover crops and the effects of cutting dates, we’re also conducting feeding trials looking at the effects of including lucerne into the diet of the high-yielding dairy cow. We are looking at the benefit of feeding lucerne with grass and maize and only with maize, and calculating the cost of protein in each of the diets.”

For more information about lucerne, download the DairyCo publication Growing and Feeding Lucerne

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Photo 3 Lucerne at the DairyCo Research Day