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Could protein-packed lucerne be a forage option on your farm?

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The UK is currently home to about 22,000 hectares (54,360 acres) of lucerne. At a recent AHDB event, farmers and experts gathered to learn more about its growth and feed value. Louise Hartley reports from Wiltshire.

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Also known as alfalfa and popular in America, lucerne is a high protein, drought tolerant perennial forage legume. In the UK it is commonly cut for silage and big bales during summer and used for grazing sheep in autumn.
However, it does not suit all farms and requires a strict cutting schedule if quality is to be achieved.
Francis Dunne, of seed merchants Field Options, guided farmers through the pros, cons and management criteria for the fragile, but protein packed crop.

Key facts

  • Yield potential of 12-16 tonnes DM/hectare
  • Persistence of up to five years
  • Energy value of 10-11ME depending on growth stage
  • Can easily and consistently yield at 20 per cent protein

Pros

  • Very high forage yields
  • High degree of drought tolerance
  • Good source of protein
  • Provides structure and ‘scratch factor’ in ruminant rations
  • No requirement for nitrogen fertiliser – it fixes about 100-200kg nitrogen per year
  • Can boost forage intakes
  • Counts towards greening requirements

Cons

  • Slow to establish
  • Demands strict cutting schedule to manage quality
  • Will not tolerate poor drainage or high winter water table
  • Does not thrive in high rainfall areas
  • Low sugar content demands careful ensiling
  • A hungry crop with high demand for potassium and potash
  • Needs a minimum four-year break between crops

Feeding to dairy cows

Feeding to dairy cows
AHDB Dairy says a review of a number of research trials comparing the performance of dairy cows fed either lucerne or grass silage, has shown lucerne silage can increase (DM) intake by 2.2kg/day and milk yield by 1.7kg/day compared to grass silage. 
 
Forage type had no significant effect on milk fat or milk protein content.
 
In contrast, when compared to red clover, despite there being higher dry matter (DM) intakes with lucerne, at 0.8kg/day, there was no significant increase in milk yield. 
Lucerne was also found to increase milk protein content by an average of 0.8g/kg compared to red clover.

Is your land suitable? 

Often growing a tap root of more than two metres (6ft 5in) long, it needs soils which are free draining and non-acidic. Although it can grow on heavy land, compaction often reduces performance and persistence.
 
In the UK, it is mostly grown in drier areas of the South and East. However, some farmers in Cornwall and south west Wales are successfully growing it with 1000mm of rainfall.
 
Soil pH should be at least 6.5 up to 8 throughout the soil profile, with the crop particularly adapted to chalk and limestone soils.
 
The crop needs good levels of phosphate, boron and sulphur and has a very high demand for potash and calcium.

Graze with care

Graze with care
Lucerne is becoming popular in dryer areas of New Zealand, especially for sheep. 
 
Lambs grazing on lucerne in New Zealand will typically gain 300g per day throughout spring.
 
A five-field paddock grazing system should be used on a 40-day rotation to allow the crop’s nutrients to be replenished after defoliation.
 
In the UK it is mostly used for autumn grazing, especially for finishing lambs, but must be grazed carefully. Aim for a minimum sward height of 6-7cm (2-2.7in) to avoid damage to the crown which can cause reduction in persistency.
 
According to AHDB Dairy, American studies suggest plant survival is reduced by 15-22 per cent over two years by continuous stocking compared to rotational grazing.
Back fencing the grazed areas will allow recovery and prevent selective grazing of young shoots.
 
Do not turn hungry stock onto freshly-grown lucerne as this can cause bloat. Introduce them gradually, allowing for an adjustment period of up to three weeks. 
 
Always ensure an additional fibre source (hay or straw) is available and provide a salt block as sodium is stored in the tap root, not the leaves.
 
More persistent ‘grazing type’ lucerne varieties, such as Luzelle, are available for those who want to graze the crop regularly, but the yield is significantly lower than the best cutting varieties.
 
Zero grazing is a good way of utilising lucerne, but a short chop is important to limit the stock separating the leaf from the stem.

Pure, mixture or cover crop?

Traditionally lucerne has been drilled on its own, but some farmers grow it with companion grasses for advantages such as easier harvesting and preservation, reduced weed burden and reduced bloat risk in grazed lucerne pastures.
 
Brome grass, timothy and meadow fescue are all considered compatible because of their relatively low vigour of establishment and un-aggressive nature. They can also help to spread production throughout the year - beneficial where growing seasons are short.
 
However, companion crops limit options for weed control and can compromise silage quality. Pure swards will allow for maximum protein production per hectare and are a fantastic complement for maize silage.

Variety choice

Globally, there are two distinct types of lucerne, one is winter dormant and grown in Northern Europe, the other is winter active and better adapted to Mediterranean climate zones. 
 
There are currently three varieties on the BSPB Recommended Grass and Clover List, but near neighbours in Europe have more comprehensive lists. 
The French list is particularly comprehensive and lists both Northern and Mediterranean varieties separately. 
 
Organic seed is available, but many varieties available are of the winter active, Mediterranean type and best avoided.

Rhizobium inoculant

THE rhizobium bacteria which develops on the roots of lucerne and fixes nitrogen is not naturally occurring in Britain, so lucerne must be inoculated.
 
You can either buy pre-inoculated seed or apply fresh live inoculant (which comes in the form of a very fine peat) before sowing. 
 
The live inoculant guarantees higher rhizobium loading – it is easy to use and comes in small sachets which sticks fairly well to seed. 
 
New treatments are being developed combining the inoculant and key minerals to aid establishment.

Establishment

Lucerne needs to be well established before the onset of winter. In the UK it is commonly sown from early-April through to mid-August. The soil temperature for germination should be a minimum of 8degC.

Clamping or baling

IN the UK, lucerne can be clamped or baled - hay is rarely made due to the fragility of the leaf.
 
Conservation can be difficult due to the high humidity and low sugar content of the crop, so good management is key to high quality forage. The high protein and calcium levels will buffer any changes in pH in the clamp/bale.
 
Cutting is usually from mid-May, depending on location and only one or two cuts will be taken in the establishment year. Do not cut too early in the establishment year to allow optimum tap root development. Normally, first cut should be allowed to reach 25-50 per cent flowering.
 
Once established, lucerne can be harvested four to five times per year, usually at five-week intervals - these intervals are crucial to manage feed quality and allow nutrients to build up between cuts. It is critical for long-term survival to leave the crop to build up root reserves for six weeks in autumn after a late August/early September cut. This cover can be harvested in mid-October, or grazed with sheep.
 
For optimum yield and quality, cut at the early flowering stage. In cold seasons, flowering maybe delayed, so cut when the crop is in bud stage. Later in the season it will flower more readily. Cutting intervals will be affected by hot and dry weather, so it is crucial to keep checking the crop.
 
Ideally mow with a crimper conditioner (not a flail) and leave in as wide a row as is practical for the forage harvester or baler. The aim is to cut the stem without bre-aking the delicate leaves. ‘Gentle’ rowing up is recommended.
 
A minimum cutting height of 10cm (4in) will avoid damage to the re-growing buds on its crown. The bottom 10cm of stem will have a very low D-value anyway and the higher stubble will allow air to pass through the newly-cut grass to aid drying.
 
The crop should be wilted for 24-36 hours to 35 per cent DM (minimum of 30 per cent) - low dry matter lucerne ensiles badly.
 
If baling silage, do not allow the crop to get too stemmy as it may puncture the wrap. Select varieties with finer stems and cut at the right time. 
 
A minimum of six wraps is advisable, eight is preferable –the extra cost of about 75 pence per bale will be worth it.
 
Lucerne is low in sugar, usually about 30 per cent, so the use of additives is recommended. Often specific inoculants are used and at a higher rate than for other forages. Clamp in thin layers with plenty of rolling.
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