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Weighing up the benefits of multispecies mixtures (March 23)

Are multispecies mixtures a silver bullet or are there other options producers should consider when making reseeding decisions? We spoke to a grassland specialist to find out more.


TEXT KAREN WRIGHT



Multispecies grass mixtures have increased in popularity in recent years, with sales at least doubling year on year since 2019. And for good reason, says Limagrain UK’s John Spence. But he suggests producers weigh up the pros and cons, look at alternatives, and decide what’s right for their own situation before taking the plunge.


“Multispecies mixtures tick a lot of boxes and offer numerous benefits, but when reseeding, producers shouldn’t be quick to discount a good ryegrass and clover mixture. These can bring many of the same benefits, along with other advantages, that might better suit some situations.”


He says that in many cases multispecies are compared with ryegrass-only swards, and the benefits of drought resistance, lower inputs and more continuous summer growth shine through in mixtures with a wider range of varieties and herb species.


“But adding clover to the ryegrass mix offers some of the benefits of a multispecies mixture, such as a reduced fertiliser requirement and more continuous growth through summer, as well as a few more advantages, including flexibility of use and longevity, that may appeal to some producers.


“Ryegrass and clover mixtures, for example, are more suited to dual-purpose use. They can be cut for silage earlier in the season, then closed up and grazed,” he says, adding that while it’s not impossible to use a multispecies mixture for cutting, they tend to be more difficult to manage.


“If multispecies swards are destined for cutting, they’re best treated as a multi-cut crop so the chicory doesn’t become too woody and undigestible.” Similarly, there’s little margin for error in the grazing management of multispecies swards if their feed value is to be realised.


“Grazing multispecies swards too tightly will reduce the persistence of the herbs. And if it’s left to grow too long then herbs, such as chicory, will become woody. It’s not quite as straight-forward to manage as a ryegrass and clover sward.”


Including herbs such as deep-rooted chicory and plantain in multispecies swards does add droughttolerance benefits and contributes to soil health and structure. “These can be extremely valuable in areas with light soils, and where drought conditions are common,” says Mr Spence. “But, in less extreme areas, tetraploid perennial ryegrass can be added to a grass and clover mixture. These are deeper rooted than diploid varieties, can withstand dry conditions better, and tend to be higher yielding and more digestible.”


Soil health


He points out that all grass swards will positively impact soil health and structure, and are an ideal addition to a cropping rotation. “Remember also that including clover in a ryegrass mixture brings nitrogen-fixing benefits and offers a more consistent growth pattern throughout the summer.”


Multispecies mixture: Limagrain's Castleherb offers a myriad of benefits


If extending the grazing season is a priority, both grass/ clover and multispecies mixtures can be formulated to include species such as timothy and Festulolium, which begin growing at lower temperatures than ryegrasses. “This adds ‘shoulders’ in spring and autumn, and extends the grazing season,” he says.


Some herb species claim anthelmintic properties to mitigate the worm burden in livestock while also adding feed value, in addition to their deep roots that enhance soil structure and grow in drier conditions.


Which species to include in a mixture is something Mr Spence says producers should also consider carefully. “The mixtures can become complicated and include 15 to 20 different components, some of which will be more difficult to establish.”


Typically herb species, such as plantain and chicory, establish well across a wide range of soil types and work in combination with productive grass species such as ryegrasses, Festulolium and timothy. Other herb species, such as sainfoin and sheeps parsley, are more difficult to establish successfully.


Mixture suitability


“Grass, chicory and plantain, with red and white clover, are the simplest and perhaps most reliable multispecies mixtures. If more complex mixtures are being considered, and these are typically more expensive, producers should take local advice on their suitability to the area and its soils, as well as information about the establishment track record of the various varieties. Otherwise they may be paying for something they’ll never see.”


The persistency of the herbal varieties will also affect sward longevity. “The herbs tend to die out quicker than grasses and clover,” adds Mr Spence. “If we get four years from a multispecies sward we’re doing well. By then most herbs will have been ‘pushed out’ by the more competitive grass varieties, with just the ryegrass and clover surviving.”


A ryegrass and white clover sward reseed should stay at its most productive for five years. “There’s a significant difference here with a multispecies sward, so this needs to be considered when costing a reseed.”


The environmental aspects of multispecies swards and its ability to attract a diverse range of wildlife has attracted some producers to these options. A key driver has been the countryside stewardship payments for crops grown in England meeting certain criteria. If the mixture complies with the rules and the crop meets the growing requirements it can attract £382/hectare.


“This is an attractive offer for some producers, even after considering the higher cost of the mixture and the reduced longevity of the sward,” says Mr Spence. ““It’s all about managing risk and balancing the conditions on the farm with the requirements from the crop, and working out which mixture will be the best match.”


Multispecies or a grass-clover mix – what to consider

● Soil type, weather conditions/drought risk ● Grazing only or cutting/grazing requirements ● Grazing management resource ● Input requirements/availability of slurry ● Productivity and persistency through the season ● Sward longevity ● Eligibility for and attractiveness of conservation / environmental schemes

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