The high protein content is what first attracted the Frankpitt family to lucerne, but having grown the crop for more than 10 years they now believe its biggest value is to be gained from its high fibre content which acts as a rumen conditioner. Farmers Guardian reports.
The high fibre content of lucerne has been particularly beneficial as ration starch levels have increased as a means of boosting yields, says James Frankpitt who runs 320 Holsteins at Rix Farm, Bolham, Devon.
“Originally, I thought lucerne was to just about providing protein in the ration, but now I see the fibre is the biggest benefit,” he explains. “If we did not feed lucerne, we would need to feed chopped straw, which is lower in energy and protein, so we would have to feed more of it. Lucerne also has a good intake factor.”
Lucerne is grown across 16 hectares (40 acres) with the silage typically delivering 19-22 per cent crude protein, 10.9-11.2MJ/kg ME and 38 to 40 per cent dry matter with a D-value of 68-70.
The herd is run as one group and fed a full TMR of lucerne, maize and grass silage, rape meal, wheat distillers and alkagrain. Cows yield 10,500 litres a cow a year at 4.1 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein.
Having moved onto a Davidstow cheese contract about two years ago, Mr Frankpitt says balancing milk yields and constituents is always a challenge, but lucerne helps to keep butterfats above 4 per cent.
“If you keep rumen health and condition right, the fats tend to follow,” says Mr Frankpitt, who farms with his parents, Michael and Alison.
Over the years the Frankpitts have grown lucerne, they have learned how to get the best from the crop. They rank selecting the right fields and good establishment as a top priority.
The 161ha (400-acre) farm is predominately medium loam, with good soil pH, but Mr Frankpitt says regularly testing soils and getting conditions right well in advance of drilling is vital.
“The field needs to have a high pH and be slightly sloping and free draining. It does not want to lie wet or you will get a problem with grass coming through and it will kill off the lucerne.”
Ideally, lucerne should be planted in soils with a pH of 7. To achieve this, the Frankpitts applied 4,942kg/ha of lime in autumn 2014 and 4,942kg/ha in spring 2015.
When following grass or maize, the field will be sprayed off prior to drilling to ensure the lucerne goes into a clean seedbed. This will help it get off to a good start so it is not outcompeted.
After spraying, slurry will be applied, ground will be ploughed, sub-soiled if required, power harrowed, rolled, drilled and rolled again. Rolling is important due to the small seed size of the lucerne. To aid establishment, seed rate has also been increased to 25kg/ha, instead of 20kg/ha. No slurry will be applied until spring.
“We are trying to get a good even establishment. We will leave drilling until soils warm up and plant a bit after maize. Lucerne is not easy to establish, so that is why it is important to get the right field, right pH and a stale seedbed,” says Mr Frankpitt.
“If there is a lot of grass coming through, it will probably only last two years, but if you put the time and effort into establishment, then it will last four to five years.”
The Frankpitts grow Timbale and Galaxie supplied by Germinal. Seeds are pre-inoculated and coated, with this process geared to ensuring precision planting and early plant vigour.
Helen Mathieu of Germinal says: “Accurate drilling and good establishment to create the optimum plant population is essential with lucerne if best use is to be made of the crop.
“This has historically been challenging for many farmers in the UK, so innovation which will significantly improve success rates with lucerne is a breakthrough.
Mr Frankpitt uses a silage additive as standard across all silages to prevent heating at feeding out.
Having originally baled the crop due to lack of clamp space, it is now ensiled using agbags.
He says: “We can have the chop length how we want and there is no sorting and better fibre utilisation. We go for a slightly longer chop length than grass as this provides nice scratch factor.”
He says growing lucerne also benefits the subsequent crop, which is usually maize. This is due to lucerne’s long roots which promote good soil structure, together with the good residual nitrogen left in the ground.