First-cut silage for 2022 got underway on the ABP Demo Farm in Co. Carlow this week when a 9ac field of red clover was taken out for bale silage.

A renewed emphasis has been placed on farmers growing red clover this year. The benefits of growing the legume was trialed on the Co. Carlow demo farm when it was sown in 2020.

Speaking to Agriland, ABP’s agri-sustainability manager, Stephen Connolly said: “We, at ABP, wanted to examine ways of reducing fertiliser usage on beef farms while also getting more home-grown protein feed for cattle.”

To do this, the farm looked to the organic sector to see what was being done that could be applied to conventional beef farming.

An opportunity was identified that using red clover had the potential to increase home-grown protein sources.

In 2020, a 9ac field was identified for reseeding on the ABP Demo Farm. It was sprayed off, prepared and sowing was done on June 13, 2020.

Stephen noted that the late sowing date was “not ideal” and added that they would have liked to have sown it in late-April or early-May.

As a result of the later sowing date, production was low on the first year, with about 50 bales secured from the 9ac in two cuts.

In 2021, the sward became established and a total of five cuts were taken from the field.

Red clover performance on ABP Demo Farm in 2021:

Date cutNo. of bales on 9acbales/ac
First cut:April 2641 bales4.5 bales/ac
Second cut:June 1454 bales6 bales/ac
Third cut:July 1930 bales3.3 bales/ac
Fourth cut:August 2632 bales3.5 bales/ac
Fifth cut:October 1218 bales2 bales/ac
Total:175 bales19.4 bales/ac

Over the course of the year, no chemical fertiliser was applied and three applications of cattle slurry were applied using a trailing shoe at a rate of 2,000 gallons/ac.

“Our grass measuring analysis showed that a total of 10t/dry matter (DM)/ha was taken of the 9ac red clover field without the use of fertiliser,” said Stephen.

Soil samples were taken from the plot this year, which found that the phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) indexes had not been negatively impacted.

The 9ac bloc of land is not grazed and is used solely for silage production. Stephen noted: “We treat it as a crop. We don’t graze it as it’s very difficult to graze due to persistency issues.”

Stephen noted that the red clover crop provides a saving on fertiliser resulting in economical savings while also offering a high protein feed.

Impact on animal performance

Stephen said it then had to be identified if the red clover silage could maintain animal performance while reducing the level of protein in the concentrates.

He explained: “What we wanted to do was see if we could feed this silage and reduce the amount of protein in our rations and measure the impact on daily liveweight gain.”

A trial was set up where two groups of over 100 cattle were assembled. The cattle in both groups were a mix of the same age, weights and breeds.

One batch of cattle acted as a control group and were fed conventional silage and the other batch were fed red-clover silage.

Silage quality:

The silage analysis results showed the red clover silage had a protein content of 18.3%. The dry matter was 36.4% and the Dry Matter Digestibility (DMD) ranged from 67-70%.

How red clover silage looks coming out of the bale

Stephen noted the DMD of the red clover silage was surprisingly low and suggested the Italian Ryegrass in the sward may have attributed to this.

He said when making red clover silage, “a good wilt is essential to help preservation as it is very leafy”.

The conventional silage had a DM of 32%, a protein content of 13.6% and a DMD ranging from 75-80%.

The feed:

  • The control group were fed 2kg/day of an 18% protein nut, 3kg/day of chopped beet along with quality grass silage;
  • The test group were fed 2kg/day of a 12% protein ration, 3kg/day of chopped beet and red clover silage.

The trial took place for 64 days during winter 2021. Before the trial, the test group had an average weight of 285kg while the average weight of the control group was 291kg.

At the end of the 64-day trial, the cattle were weighed again.

The average weights at the end of the trial were as follows:

  • Control group: 337.5kg. Average daily weight gain: 0.73kg;
  • Test group (fed Red Clover silage): 337kg. Average daily weight gain: 0.81kg.

The trial on the ABP Demo Farm found that the cattle eating red clover thrived better. Stephen also commented that the red clover silage was “a lot more palatable” for the cattle.

The red clover sward is now in its third year and is persisting well on the farm. A further 8ac of red clover will be sown this year.

Concluding, Stephen said: “Managing the red clover and growing it as a crop without fertiliser is such a mindset change. It does require more management and has to be cut at the right time before flowering or getting too heavy.”