Lucerne is a high-quality forage crop for livestock, rich in protein and digestible fibre, making it an appealing alternative to bought-in feed. Lucerne’s nitrogen-fixing abilities also bring environmental benefits, but it was its deep taproot and drought tolerance which made it particularly attractive last summer. We learn more from Gloucestershire dairy farmer Jack Bye and his advice for managing lucerne crops in dry conditions.
“Challenging” and ‘frustrating’ are the words Jack Bye uses to describe the forage situation in summer 2022 but says, “our lucerne really proved its worth”.
Jack runs a herd of 90 pedigree Holstein Friesian cows at Allengrove Farm near Chippenham and uses lucerne to provide a valuable high-volume source of high protein feed.
“We aim to be as self-sufficient as possible in terms of feed production,” says Jack. “Our average current milk yield stands at just over 7,500 litres per cow, and I would calculate around 5,200 litres of that comes from forage. We’re only feeding 650 to 750 kg of purchased concentrate a year to each cow.”
Managing lucerne crops
Like many areas of the country, Jack’s part of south Gloucestershire suffered very dry conditions in late June 2022. He tells us how his lucerne crop performed.
“We managed to take two cuts from the lucerne crop before the hot dry weather arrived but didn’t take another until October. But unlike the Italian ryegrass (IRG) and other perennials, which dried up and turned brown, the lucerne remained lush and green.
“While the lucerne crop didn’t grow, it was ready to move as soon as conditions allowed. When we saw the weather beginning to break, we went out with a bit of slurry. Then when the moisture came the crop grew rapidly, and we were able to cut over 20 ha for silage in early October.
“Our IRG leys were so dry it took them much longer to pick up, not really looking anywhere near recovered until November."
Best silage crop
“We’d have been lost without the lucerne and, in fact, we’re planting double the area this year. This isn’t just because of the crop’s performance in dry weather but the nutritional and sustainability benefits lucerne offers.
“Lucerne is a high protein crop that doesn’t need nitrogen, only manure. It’s high digestible fibre content drives butterfat on this farm (4.4%) and its high beta carotene level promotes fertility.
“As a legume, lucerne is a nitrogen fixer. We have traditionally sown wheat after it but two years ago we followed some of our lucerne area with IRG in a spring reseed. We took five crops of silage from that IRG without a single kilogramme of nitrogen being applied. That year, 45% of our silage had been grown without an application of nitrogen and we’re hoping to increase this to 75% in 2023."
Improving soil health with lucerne
“This means we’re using much less nitrogen, reducing its financial and environmental cost. Lucerne’s deep roots also open up the soil structure allowing better microbial activity and improving soil health, all adding to the benefits the crop brings.
“I think lucerne has suffered from indifference to its potential as a forage crop and a reputation for being hard to grow but once you manage its establishment and first cut, it really isn’t.”
You can learn more about establishing and managing lucerne crops here. Or, if you have any questions, you can contact a Germinal forage expert by submitting the form below.