Clover is the bedrock of Welsh dairy farm

Friday 18.11.2022 , News

Aled Rees describes clover as the bedrock of his farming system. Seeing many benefits from it including reduced bought-in feed costs, Aled believes it contributed to his family’s recent award success.

The Rees family runs a 950-acre organic dairy operation in West Wales and was named the 2022 winner of BGS Grassland Farmer of the Year.

“We’d never have achieved what we have without clover,” says Aled. “My father was a believer in it 30-40 years ago and we’ve continued using it ever since. It allowed us to go organic.”

Farm facts: Rees family

  • 950 acres total – including 385 acres grazing platform, 505 acres silage and 60 acres arable
  • Rotational grazing
  • 10.3 t DM/ha
  • Over 40% clover in grazing and silage leys
  • 260-acre Treclyn Isaf, Eglwyswrw, Crymych
  • Split block calving herd (200 autumn, 100 spring) – pure Friesian with a small number of pure Jersey
  • Average yield 7,333 litres, milk from forage 4,010 litres
  • Butterfat: 4.23%; protein: 3.36%
  • 125-acre Trefere Fawr, Cardigan
  • 100-head flying herd

Multiple benefits from red clover

Red clover is used to produce high-quality, high-protein silage and for its ability to improve the soil for other crops.

“We find red clover useful for recovering rented land if we take it on in poor condition and it worked well under some forage rye struggling on heavy ground earlier this year. Direct drilling a red clover and perennial ryegrass mix really helped the rye pick up.

“We were using the older, short-term red clovers when we were in the Tir Gofal environmental scheme. Now we’re focusing on dairy production with increased cow numbers, we’re enjoying the newer, more persistent varieties.

“The high quality of our silage including the red clover has reduced our bought-in feed costs. We used to feed 18 or 21% cake in the parlour but this has dropped to 16% and could probably be 14% if we were brave enough.”

Running an organic system there is also a reliance on clover for its ability to fix nitrogen. “We can’t use inorganic nitrogen fertiliser, so all our nitrogen comes from the clover and our own slurry. And with fertiliser prices where they are, this is benefiting us financially.”

Grass quality and quantity achieved without nitrogen fertiliser

Aled suggests the amount of good quality grass they can grow without using applied nitrogen also impressed the BGS judges.

When selecting the best grass seed, the Rees family’s proximity to Aberystwyth makes Germinal varieties an obvious choice.

“We use Aber varieties whenever we can. I figured if they grow well in Aberystwyth where they’re developed, they’ll grow well here – and they do.

“We use Germinal’s organic mixes with a high white clover content for grazing and a mixture of white and red clover in the silage fields.”

The Rees family uses a multi-cut silage system, taking at least four cuts a year beginning in late April or early May. Figures for 2021 showed metabolisable energy (ME) started at 11.97, dropping to 11 at final cut in mid-September. Protein ranged from 14.73% to 16%.

“We run up to seven mowers when silaging to cut at the best time of day when sugars are at their highest.”

When it comes to reseeding, decisions are based on the close monitoring of pasture performance field by field. Weekly plate meter measurements are coupled with regular soil testing to inform the annual reviews.

“We reseed based on need but as soon as output drops below average, we investigate why. We’ve reseeded 75-80 acres this year, so not far off 10%.”

Increasing use of multi-species

The dry conditions experienced during the 2022 summer highlighted the value of multi-species swards to Aled.

“It’s been a challenging year for grass growth, particularly through July and August. One of our dairy units near the Cardigan coast is on a much drier site than the other nestled under the Preseli Hills catching more rain.

“We’d had a herbal ley down for three years and had begun wondering whether it was any good, but it’s been fantastic this year. As a result, we direct drilled some chicory, plantain and yarrow into a grass ley just before the rain in late August on our drier unit and it really took off. The cows are grazing on it now in November.”

Future plans

Looking ahead to 2023 and given the success of their current pasture-based system, Aled is determined they’ll keep farming with the same close attention to excellent grassland management.

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