Farmers consider lucerne for sustainable high protein forage option

Farmers consider lucerne for sustainable high protein forage option

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Feeding a growing global population in an era of climate change, land use pressures and increased input costs has been described as one of the biggest challenges currently facing humanity, let alone UK agriculture. But did you know that farmers engaged in our DairyCo-BGS demonstrations farms project are actively involved in finding solutions by putting research into practice.

At the recent demo farm open day at Chynoweth Farm in Cornwall, the Foote family described how they have been reducing brought-in fed costs by growing lucerne as alternative forage.

Simon, James and Rob Foote currently run a 320 cow Holstein herd. They have taken on the challenge of farming sustainably through adopting a range of strategies to build self-sufficiency into their system and reduce costs. As well as being in their second year of growing lucerne - a high protien forage, one third of the herd is milked through two robots with electricity and heat being supplied to the farm by a customised slurry lagoon to recover methane used to power a generator.

In 2013 the variable costs for dairy farmers in the South West rose by 12% on the previous year – the largest contributor being concentrate feed and forage costs (Farm Business Management Digest, 2013). The Foote’s hope that growing and feeding lucerne will shave 30 to 40% from their annual purchased feed bill, because as a high protein crop providing a quality livestock feed, it can replace bought-in imported soya.

Farmers attending the open day heard from Dr Louisa Dines and Prof Liam Sinclair, from Harper Adams University, who are currently investigating the optimum timing for establishment of the crop and examining the optimum rate of inclusion of lucerne in dairy cow diets.

Interestingly, Prof Sinclair explained that trails have shown that increasing lucerne rates to over 40% has no significant benefit. He explained that a rate of around 20% seems to be optimum and that it compliments maize in the diet particularly well saying that “whilst maize is high in sugary starch, lucerne is low in sugars and high in protein. What’s more, both maize and lucerne naturally favour the same growing conditions on dryer, more freely draining soil types and during hot summers”.

The long tap root of lucerne gives it the ability to access water and minerals from deeper in the soil meaning that it is more drought tolerant than many of our traditional crops for livestock feed. As we face the likelihood of more extremes in weather patterns as a result of climate change, farmers need to prepare for dry weather spells as well as the particularly wet weather we experienced at the start of the year.

Adding to its sustainability credentials lucerne also fixes nitrogen, providing between 150–200kg per hectare per year –No nitrogen fertiliser is required for the lucerne and the rate needed for the following crop is considerably reduced.

 

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