NEW research to ensure more Welsh livestock farmers could benefit from longer lasting, disease resistant red clovers is being undertaken at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS).
The three-year Welsh Government (WG) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF)-funded project is looking at ways to improve protein production and utilisation on farms in Wales through improved forage crops.
Professor Leif Skot, head of forage plant breeding at IBERS, is leading the project, whose partners are WG, ERDF, Germinal Holdings, HCC and Farming Connect.
As part of the project, Professor Skot and his team are looking at how red clover production and persistence can be improved, helping farmers to improve their silage crop value. In turn, this could go some way in helping farmers reduce the need to buy-in as many expensive concentrates.
Historically, some producers have been drawn away from red clover due to a tendency for yields to drop off after a couple of years. To solve that problem, scientists developed varieties which focused on improved yields and better persistence so they yield well into their fourth and fifth harvest.
However, prolonging the productive life of the plant increases the risk of another problem red clover faces, which is where this new project is currently focused.
Professor Skot explains: “One of the biggest issues is that red clover is susceptible to trampling, and if the plants get damaged then they are susceptible to disease. White clover is stoloniferous, which means it grows by stolons [small roots] which spread across the soil surface and allows the plant to fill in any gaps in the sward. Red clover plants, on the other hand, grow from a single growing point, the crown. That means that once the crown is damaged and the plant succumbs to disease, the remaining plants aren’t able to compensate and fill in the gaps, leading to a loss in yields.”
In a bid to counter this, Professor Skot and his team are developing resistance to the two major diseases responsible for red clover loss: Stem Nematode and Crown Rot (Sclerotinia).
They hope that by developing disease-resistant plants, they can create a more robust, productive plant.
“Stem Nematode and Sclerotinia are soil-borne pathogens for which we have no recognised chemical control. The current solution is to take a long gap in the rotation to minimise the potential risk of the problem,” adds Paul Billings of Germinal. “This research project is looking at whether we can select material which is more resistant to each of these diseases, and then combine them to create varieties resistant to both pathogens.”
Professor Skot says he and his team have carried out several generations of selection for Stem Nematode and Sclerotinia. They are now at the stage where they will combine the resistance to one population so it can be tested in the field.
While it is high-yielding and produces high-quality forage from the first year, red clover does need to be managed in a way which will improve its resistance, Professor Skot adds.
“The crown of the plant is susceptible to damage, so we are looking at improving its structure.. Our research shows that if they have compact crowns then they are more resilient to damage from machinery and compaction from animals or grazing. The major management technique is not cutting below 5cm and not overgrazing so that the crown isn’t damaged.”
With the correct management, red clover can yield between 22 and 25 tonnes of dry matter per hectare per annum when sown with grass, with clover content able to reach as high as 20 tonnes of dry matter in the first year.
“It’s high-yielding and high-quality from the first year, which is one of the great things about the crop. By minimising the problem areas, we can hopefully give Welsh farmers a way to produce more of their own protein on-farm,” he says.
This project aims to help deliver on the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations Act, one objective of which is to drive sustainable growth. It also contributes to its Economic Action Plan which encourages greater R&D and innovation.
RED CLOVER CASE STUDY
The Cowcher family from Penrhiw, Ceredigion, a Farming Connect Focus site, has seen the advantages of growing red clover on their farm for over a decade, but the introduction of long-lasting varieties would boost the benefits of the crop even further.
“We’ve been using red clover for more than ten years since we converted to organic production,” says Phil Cowcher, who farms beef and sheep with his parents across 500 acres (202ha) of part-owned, part-rented and part share-farmed organic farmland.
“It gives us high yields of good-quality forage, which can be difficult in organic systems, and it suppresses weeds because it’s very vigorous – if we get creeping thistles it smothers and gets rid of them,” he says. “Red clover is also important for fixing nitrogen. Cereals following red clover systems seem to yield very well, and it has deep tap roots so it breaks up the compaction.”
Phil believes planting with a cereal reduces competition from weeds during establishment, as the cereal acts as a nurse crop.
The 45 acres (18ha) of red clover is used by both the farm’s beef and sheep enterprises. The calves – produced by the 60-head, mainly Stabiliser suckler herd – tend to be fed the second and third cuts, as part of the growing and finishing rations.
The first cut, which usually has a higher grass content and metabolisable energy, is usually fed to pregnant ewes late in their pregnancy. Towards the end of the growing season, the red clover leys are rotationally grazed by lambs.
Phil adds: “For the calves, I like to feed two-thirds red clover with a third barley and peas for fibre. If it’s alone then it’s a bit rich, but by combining it with barley and peas it seems to complement the clover well.
“We make sure lambs are introduced gradually to the red clover when they first graze it. Once they’ve adjusted to the diet, growth rates are good and they usually finish well – we start selling in June at around 19kg and the last ones go by October.”
Phil believes management is fairly simple but stresses the importance of sowing in a fine seedbed when soils are over 10℃. If there’s a cold spring then cereals are planted first and the red clover ley is sown on top with a grass harrow/air seeder, into the growing crop, once soil temperature is high enough.
“When we cut it we have to make sure we don’t cut it too low, and we have to be careful not to overgraze it and damage the crown too. But for us, red clover’s a high-quality, high yielding crop and we’ll definitely carrying on growing it,” Phil concludes
HCC works to open the Chinese market
A DELEGATION of government officials from the People’s Republic of China has visited Britain this week as part of an ongoing process to lift years-old restrictions on exports of UK sheepmeat to mainland China.
Organised by the UK Export Certification Partnership, of which Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) is a member alongside other levy boards, industry bodies and Government, the visit brought officials from the Chinese General Administrations of Customs (GACC) to the UK to learn more about disease control measures for sheepmeat.
As well as visiting farms and processing facilities, the delegation heard from vets and other experts.
HCC Export Development Executive Deanna Jones said that the visit was another important step, following the announcement earlier this year of the signing of a protocol agreement on beef, which could lead to the Chinese market opening to PGI Welsh Beef in 2020.
“The Chinese market is, of course, the most populous in the world,” said Deanna. “If we were able to lift the historic restrictions on exports to the People’s Republic, it could be a major boost to lamb and beef farmers in Wales.
“In the summer, we made very good progress on beef following the GACC inspection and the visit of the high-level Chinese delegation with Welsh Government to farms in Wales,” added Deanna. “But we’ve always been clear that being able to export PGI Welsh Lamb is hugely important. We’re therefore pleased to see progress in this area too, although it’s too soon to say when sheepmeat exports might begin.”
Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, said: “The red meat sector is of huge importance to Welsh agriculture and the economy. As we prepare to leave the European Union, lifting restrictions could provide a great opportunity for our producers to explore new overseas markets and get a foothold in the Chinese market for our iconic PGI Welsh Lamb.”
The visit was financed from the £2 million funds of AHDB red meat levies ring-fenced for collaborative projects which is managed by Britain’s three meat levy bodies: AHDB, HCC and QMS.
The fund is an interim arrangement while a long-term solution is sought on the issue of levies being collected at the point of slaughter in England for animals which have been reared in Scotland and Wales.
FUW open letter urges against Brexit protest votes in EU election
THE FARMERS’ UNION OF WALES (FUW) has warned that protest votes in Thursday’s election in favour of hard-line Brexit MEPs will damage agriculture, rural communities, and the UK’s reputation on the international stage.
Speaking at the NSA biennial Sheep Event at Glynllifon yesterday (May 21), FUW President Glyn Roberts described the European Elections as one of the most unusual in living memory, but warned votes should not be treated lightly or be used to send a message of frustration to mainstream politicians.
Mr Roberts said: “That frustration is understandable, as is the fatigue we all endure around Brexit, having seen mistakes at every turn and so many promises broken.
“But the dangers of placing symbolic votes for single-issue hard-line Brexit politicians who have no manifestos to speak of cannot be underestimated.”
A vote for those who would see us rapidly exiting the EU – rather than doing so over a realistic and safe timetable – would hit farmers and rural communities hard and cause untold damage to our economy, warned Mr Roberts.
He said: “We must look at the facts, not the rhetoric, and recognise that the only way in which to make Brexit a success is to be patient and cautious.”
The union has long warned of the dangers of trying to untangle too quickly the UK from an EU which it has spent almost half a century becoming more aligned with.
“Rash decisions and votes born of frustration with the failures of mainstream politicians can only lead to long-lasting economic and social damage to our food producers and security, and our communities and nations as a whole,” said Mr Roberts.
Mr Roberts highlighted that import tariff rates, published by the UK Government in mid-March, were a fraction of those which would apply to the tariffs UK farmers would have to pay to export – an approach championed by Nigel Farage, who admitted in 2018 that: “It could be the [sic] lowering of standards in terms of what we buy in our shops, and it could be bad news for farmers.”
In addition, some candidates say that, if elected, they will use their time in the European Parliament to be a disruptive force.
“My fear is that such individuals will send messages across the EU and the World that the UK is anything but a mature country which is open to trade and fit to play a role on the international stage,”said Mr Roberts. “Rather, it will close doors across the World and further undermine our international reputation.
“We must ensure the Members of the European Parliament we do elect genuinely represent Wales and the UK’s long term interests, by acting with respect, honour and diplomacy,” said Mr Roberts.
“We must build bridges with their counterparts and officials from across the European Union – the people with whom the UK will in coming months have to negotiate a favourable trade deal if the affluent markets on our doorstep are to remain open to essential trade.”
Mr Roberts also sent a stark warning about the rise of extremism, saying that symbolic votes for popularist politicians who are very much to the right of conventional politics, some with links to the extreme right, brought to mind what was seen across Europe in the 1930s.
“The frustrations with the Brexit process and desire for ‘Britishness’ is understandable, but – whilst I regard myself as a Welshman, first and foremost – I do not believe that such a lurch to the right would reflect true Britishness. In fact, it would be a move towards the sort of politics against which battles were fought seventy five years ago to protect our nations and freedoms,” Mr Roberts added.
Farming faces zero carbon challenge
AN AMBITIOUS new target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 will lead to significant changes in farming practices over the coming decades, according to a leading agri-environment specialist.
Professor Iain Donnison, Head of the Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, was responding to the publication of ‘Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’ published by the UK Government Committee on Climate Change.
Professor Donnison is an expert on agriculture and land use, which feature in the report in terms of targets for one-fifth of agricultural land to be used for forestry, bioenergy crops and peatland restoration.
According to Professor Donnison, such a reduction is very ambitious but achievable in Wales and the wider UK. “Land use can positively contribute towards achieving the net zero targets, but there are challenges in relation to emissions from agriculture especially associated with red meat and dairy,” said Professor Donnison.
“In IBERS we are already working on how to make livestock agriculture less carbon intensive and developing new diversification options for the farming of carbon. For example, net zero targets could provide significant diversification opportunities for both farmers and industries that make use of biomass and wood for the production of energy, materials including in construction and for wider environmental benefits.”
Professor Donnison added: “The report gives a clear message regarding the importance of the task and the role that the UK can play to compensate for past emissions and to help play a leadership role in creating a greener future.
“The report says it seeks to be based on current technologies that can be deployed and achievable targets. One-fifth of agricultural land is a very ambitious target but I believe that through the approaches proposed it is achievable (e.g. for bioenergy crops it fits in with published targets for the UK). This is based on the knowledge and technologies we have now regarding how to do this, and because right now in the UK we are developing a new agricultural policy that looks beyond the common agriculture policy (CAP). For example, the 25-year Environment plan published by Defra envisages payment for public goods which could provide a policy mechanism to help ensure that the appropriate approaches are implemented in the appropriate places.
“The scale of the change, however, should not be underestimated, although agriculture is a sector that has previously successfully responded to challenges such as for increased food production. The additional challenge will be to ensure that we deliver all the benefits we wish to see from land: food, carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) management and wider environmental benefits, whilst managing the challenge of the impacts of climate change.
“The link is made between healthy diets with less red meat consumption and future reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. This reflects that agriculture will likely go through significant change over the coming decades as a result of changes in consumer diets.
“Net Zero targets, however, could provide significant diversification opportunities for both farmers and industries that make use of biomass and wood for the production of energy, materials including in construction and for wider environmental benefits.”
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