Mitigate dry conditions with drought tolerant forage crops

Wednesday 10.08.2022 , News

It is clear dry conditions are becoming the norm, not the exception. Grass and forage expert Ben Wixey explains what farmers can do to manage grass in dry conditions and how to grow drought tolerant forage crops in the future.

Slow your rotation

It’s tricky to manage what feels like a fast-moving conveyer belt of hungry animals and grass regrowth. Slowing it down will make life a lot easier.

“There’s a saying, ‘Manage the grass, don’t manage the cow’,” says Ben. “At this point in the year, your focus should be on trying to preserve the quality of the grass you have.”

By supplementing with silage or other forage, either in the field or prior to milking, you can slow the cattle down when they arrive on the sward. This helps create time for recovery and regrowth when adequate moisture is around.

In recent weeks, older leys containing shallow-rooted weed grasses will have burnt off due to the extreme dry weather. This makes assessing your swards for perennial ryegrass content vital.

Essentially, the higher the percentage of perennial ryegrass, the greater the yield (t DM/ha), ME (MJ/kg DM) and ME per hectare, especially in dry conditions.

Preserve winter forage by drilling brassicas

When grass does dry up or burn off, consider drilling brassicas. Fast-growing crops such as stubble turnips or the hybrid brassica Redstart will supplement your forage in the back end of the year.

 Mitigate dry conditions with drought tolerant forage crops

“If you are eating into your winter silage reserves, you can sow a high-yielding Italian ryegrass crop when sufficient moisture is around, to help extend grazing days in the winter or even a late silage cut.

“Alternatively, for a cost-effective forage boost, you can drill a mixture containing 12 kg/ha Italian ryegrass and 5 kg/ha forage rape. It will extend your winter grazing days and preserve winter silage. The Italian ryegrass will also help keep the stock clean over the winter months.

“Once burnt-off, it also provides an entry for a spring reseed using multi-species mixtures or a perennial ryegrass and white clover mix – both suited to providing more forage in dry months when compared with an older pasture.”

Signing up for alerts from AHDB’s Forage for Knowledge service will help you stay up to date with grass levels and tips for management. By keeping a close eye on your forage levels, you’ll know when demand is ahead of supply.

Create sward diversity with multi-species

If you have a newly reseeded pasture, it will be much higher yielding in dry times than older pasture. However, adding diversity to your pastures can improve resilience for future years.

“Now is the time to plan for next season,” Ben advises. “Sowing a multi-species mix containing plantain, chicory and white and red clover seed can add valuable forage through dry summer months for next year.”

 Mitigate dry conditions with drought tolerant forage crops

Plantain, chicory and clover will not only supplement the energy from grass but also have drought tolerant properties. Ben explains, “Plantain and chicory have a longer taproot, so it’s ideal for drought-tolerance and can help improve soil structure.

“Both red and white clover too, once established, handle drought well. You’ll also benefit from the nitrogen-fixing properties of clover and its high protein and energy content which can help reduce the cost of bought-in feed.”

As part of his movement to tackle drought conditions, Farmers Weekly Grassland Manager of the Year 2021 Mark Housby oversows with chicory, plantain, red and white clover in areas which burn off first to keep forage levels up.

Echoing Ben’s advice, Mark uses deep-rooting plantain to benefit soil structure and boost sward performance when grass begins to suffer in dry conditions. He also uses white clover in his overseeding mix for its ability to fix nitrogen in drier pastures.

Think long-term about your drought tolerant forage

Dry and warmer summers are more frequent now and as the climate changes, so farm practices in the UK will change too.

When planning your grazing in the future, it is likely you’ll consider not just the yield you gain from forage, but other factors too – like nitrogen fixation, drought tolerance, biodiversity and a reduced need for herbicides.

This holistic approach has been evolving over the past decade, but the turbulence of the past year and rising costs has accelerated it being thrown into the spotlight on many farms.

Germinal is at the forefront of developing climate smart and drought tolerant forage through our research and innovation division, Germinal Horizon.

Whether developing the industry-leading Aber High Sugar Grasses to boost nutrient use efficiency, running on-farm trials or evidencing sustainability gains from diverse leys, we’re committed to future-proofing UK agriculture.

AberRoot perennial ryegrass festulolium

One example of how we’re tackling drought resistance is through the development of our innovative new festulolium, AberRoot. It has undergone rigorous testing to become the first and only perennial ryegrass festulolium listed on the Recommended Grass and Clover Lists for England and Wales.

 Mitigate dry conditions with drought tolerant forage crops

AberRoot is an intermediate tetraploid perennial ryegrass variety which combines the benefits of Germinal’s Aber HSG grasses with the deep-rooting ability of Atlas fescue – making it a high-yielding and drought tolerant forage.

AberRoot is currently being tested by a network of UK farmers in their respective production systems – a regular part of our breeding development process before a new variety comes to the UK market.

To stay ahead of the curve and receive updates on our research, sign up for our newsletter below. For advice on grass and forage production, visit our Knowledge Hub.