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Clover trial focuses on production gains

Clover trial focuses on production gains
The Tosswill farm is one of three farms on the East Coast taking part in a Beef + Lamb NZ innovation project aimed at establishing sub-clover on uncultivable hill country.

Richard and Becks Tosswill farm 646 hectares of genuine summer dry hill country in the Wairarapa with 622ha being effective and 10% cultivable. They run 3000 breeding ewes, 100 Angus cows and mate all hoggets and R1 heifers.

They’re one of three farms on the East Coast of the North Island taking part in a Beef + Lamb NZ Innovation project aimed at establishing and promoting sub-clover on uncultivable hill country.

They’re targeting their clover-friendly, north facing, dry, hard faces that have never seen a tractor, and the intention is to make this dry hard country more profitable by maximising their use of clover.

“This hill country typically has around 12% legume in spring and what we’re doing in this project is coming up with a formula to lift the percentage of clover in our pastures over three years to 40-50% clover and see what effect that will have on stock performance,” Richard explains.

Being an annual the sub-clover seed germinates with autumn moisture, grows slowly through the winter and really takes off in early spring before flowering in early summer to drop the seed that will replenish the supply for the subsequent years. Richard has been trialing a 10 hectare paddock.

One side of the paddock is being run as usual with conventional management while the other is being managed to give the clover every opportunity to get up in the autumn, thrive in early spring and set seed.

“The way I look at it, it’s about mapping out an area on your farm and thinking about it as a crop rotation. We might do more rapid and faster grazings with the sheep than usual so we don’t get too deep into the sward and chew out the germinating clover. But we’re doing it one bit at a time and it’s not a huge area so its manageable. You can even achieve the same thing just with using more cattle to graze that area and open the pasture up for the clover and there’s no danger of over-grazing,” explains Ric hard.

“We allowed some brief grazing spells during the winter and some light set stocking at lambing before shutting up from October 1st to let it flower and go to seed and spread the burrs into the soil. Our expectations are anything from 100kgs to 300kgs of clover seed back into the soil.”

As far as Richard’s concerned it’s worth the change in management style which requires little or no additional work.

“Clover’s really high in ME and protein and it’s what the lambs do best on, they love it. So if you can replace good old brown top on your hills with a bit more clover you’re guaranteed to be lifting performance per hectare whether it be ewe or lamb. Plus, for us, the timing of sub clover growth is bang on with lactation.

The extra energy from the clover means more milk production from the ewes, and the lambs have more clover in their diet so more weight gain and on it goes. It really gets the paddock looking a nice dark green with the way it fixes extra nitrogen into the soil so there’s less need to top dress with extra urea so that’s good as well.”

Because clover is a hard seed it can take a couple of seasons for the seed coat to breakdown and the seed to germinate, the trial is, of necessity, long term.

It was the spring before last that the Tosswills shut up their first paddock and it’s next autumn that they’ll start monitoring the stock movements in and out and really hope to reap the benefits of the new growth coming through.

“We’ll really be able to see what the variation is between the two halves of the paddock. There’ll be the typical management and the new management and hopefully the new management will show firstly more legume in the pasture and secondly a flow-on with better stock performance.’’

The idea is that one season of altered management to build up a good bank of clover seed will boost production for five years or more. Richard’s optimistic.

“We also trialed a 12m by 6m strip in the paddock we were managing as usual to see what would happen if we broadcast a variety of clover seed on the hardest, driest strip. That spring we had an amazing result as it had lifted from 10%-15% clover to 72% clover.”

The way Richard sees it there are a lot of farms like his that have minimal flat areas and limited availability for enhanced cultivation systems. He hopes the trial will show that by working with the clover available in their uncultivable hills they can still lift the ME on their property, even if they have to introduce the clover initially.

“They may have to broadcast seed by helicopter if they find they’ve only got 3% or 4% in their pasture. We’re going to do some of that this year in May, off our own bat, when the soil’s nice and wet.”

Richard’s been working closely with Paul Muir from On-farm Research who’s running the trial with them as part of the Ag-Innovation work sponsored by Beef + Lamb NZ. He also works with consultant Simon Glennie from AbacusBio in Dunedin.

They’re looking forward to the end of the trial when they can crunch the numbers and confi rm that the financials stack up.

“We’ve got to show that it actually works. We want to see clover across the hills on the northern faces, but obviously the most important thing is that we see a lift in production, so that means heavier lambs at weaning, and better liveweight ewes at weaning. I reckon this has really got potential so it’ll be good if we can prove it. For what is a summer dry annual it’s a very cool plant!”

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