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Learning about lucerne

Ben Stroud pictured with some of his cows feeding.

Lucerne has become the star crop at one mixed farm near Melton Mowbray. Sara Gregson paid a visit. Leicestershire mixed arable and dairy farmer Ben Stroud first drilled lucerne in the summer of 2014, into an 11ha field that suffered from terrible blackgrass. Weed control in the first autumn and regular cutting for silage the following spring and summer, soon sorted out the problem. After cutting this year, this field will make way for a new crop of winter wheat. “We drilled the variety Daisy in August after winter wheat into a very good seedbed,” explains Ben. “While lucerne is a very deep rooter – it hates any compaction and we take our time to give it the best start possible.” Soils in the fields at The Grange

are primarily heavy clay. Ben feels sub-soiling the field is essential – something he failed to do the first time he grew it. A shallow seedbed is then prepared in the cereal stubble with discs, before being consolidated with press and Cambridge rolls. The seed is broadcast onto the surface of the soil using a drill that is lifted almost out of work, literally dropping the seed onto the soil. The field is then rolled again. “We spray with fluazifop-P-butyl against cereal volunteers and 2,4-DB to take out any broad-leaved weeds in the autumn,” comments Ben. “Then we treat it with some propyzamide in January, which is still

good against black-grass. The lucerne is dormant over this period and remains unaffected. But the terrible mat of black-grass has gone. When we take the first cut – we can see the base of the sward is very clean indeed. “Establishment costs are slightly higher than for grass, but spreading these over four years growth makes them more sustainable.”

Crops and livestock The 224ha farm grows 142ha of cereals (including wheat and barley) and oilseed rape. It also supports a herd of 170 cows and followers on 82ha of grassland, including 16ha of the red clover Oliver Seeds silage mixture Sabre Hi Pro, which produces high quality, high protein forage. “We are reducing bought-in feed costs by growing more protein crops like the lucerne and red clover and feeding home-grown rolled barley. Our milk goes locally to Long Clawson Dairy for Stilton cheese, so maintaining butterfat and protein content level all year round, is important. The cows are averaging 9,000 litres of milk a year, at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.4 per cent protein.

“The lucerne also provides fibre to the total mixed ration which is good for rumen health and allows us to feed more starch. We used to feed straw to increase fibre in the ration, which has no nutritional value, but we don’t any more. “We are feeding up to 9kg of lucerne fresh-weight, from bales, which are 50 per cent dry matter. And the cows love it. “Yield from the lucerne fields has been very consistent. Last season the first year lucerne yielded the same as the third year field at 33t/ha, which gave us approximately 50 round bales/ ha from four cuts.

A 10cm stubble is left to protect the all important growing point of the lucerne plants.

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