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Farming

Red clover innovation for Wales

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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.

In clover: Phil Cowcher at Penrhiw


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

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Farming

Cattle prices exceed averages – and expectations

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BEEF cattle prices in England and Wales have hit the milestone of £4 per kilo, making this average the highest on record in a number of years.

The average deadweight price for steers for the week ending 24 April was 401.4p per kg which is 83p higher than this time last year and 67p above the five-year average.

Market prices at present are being influenced by a number of unique factors, including strong UK domestic retail demand, a lack of supply due to stockpiling in late-2020 ahead of the Brexit deadline, and changes in trade patterns caused by both Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

Whilst the impact of these factors on demand for beef in 2021 is unpredictable, newly released data from the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) suggests that no radical shift is likely in the supply of animals over the coming months.

During 2020, total calf registrations in GB were up marginally (0.5%) on 2019. In Wales, the figures show an increase of 1.4% in beef calf registrations, whilst dairy calf numbers increased by 3.2% on the year. For 2021 so far, beef calf registrations are currently trending 1.1% below last year.

Glesni Phillips is a Data Analyst at Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC). She said: “As we approach the peak calving period for spring calving herds in Wales, it is expected that BCMS monthly registration figures will increase over the coming months.

“However, the suckler cow herd in the UK has been retracting in recent years and currently, it shows no signs of re-building quickly. Prime heifer slaughterings during 2020 and the first quarter of this year, for instance, are higher than recent historic levels.

“These figures would suggest that supply onto the domestic UK market will likely remain tight for some time. Domestic retail figures for beef are strong, and with barbeque season coming up we should continue to see good demand  for good quality, locally produced beef.”

A more detailed analysis of the BCMS calf registrations data is available in HCC’s latest Market Bulletin on the HCC website.

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Farming

NVZ rules driving family farms out of business

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GLAMORGAN beef and sheep farmers Richard Walker and his partner Rachel Edwards run Flaxland Farm – a 120-acre beef and sheep holding just outside of Barry, Glamorgan. The couple say they will have to give up keeping cattle if current Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations are not adjusted to incorporate recommendations made by industry stakeholder groups.

Richard and Rachel keep 35 breeding cows and 130 breeding ewes and are at the end of their tether.

“We’ve had a session with Farming Connect to see what we need to be doing, and it didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, apart from that we have enough ground to cope with how much slurry we produce. So we wouldn’t have to export. But we would have to cover one of the existing yards, which is an awkward shape, plus cover where we scrape slurry to, and also put in a slurry store. Which we don’t have at the moment,” said Rachel Edwards. 

“Judging on what the shed we had to put up recently has cost us, I don’t think we’ll have any change out of £50 thousand if we try to meet the requirements of the new regulations.  35 cows don’t bring in that sort of money. Where do you get that money from? And you still need to pay it back at the end if it’s borrowed. We’re looking at the kids probably still paying off what we’d spend. It would be far more stressful having to pay all that money back than getting rid of the cows. 

“These regulations are going to have a huge impact on our farm business. If nothing is done to amend or annul what we are facing now, I’ll have no choice but to get rid of the cattle. Trying to comply with these regulations is just going to be too expensive for us,” said Richard Walker.

Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths announced the plans in a written statement in November last year, after which it became apparent that the majority of the plans had simply ‘been cut-and-pasted’ from the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) rules currently affecting just 2.4% of Wales.

While the Welsh Government announced in January that £11.5 funding would be made available to help farmers comply with the new rules – an allocation it had already announced previously in September 2020 – this represents just 3% of the £360 million the Welsh Government’s own impact assessment estimates the costs could be for Welsh farmers.

“There’s clearly nowhere near enough money to go around, and the total estimated bill is more than Wales’ annual farming budget.

“The margins are tight on lowland sucklers as it is. We’re looking at spending tens of thousands of pounds to comply. Is it really worth it?” adds Richard.

At Flaxland farm the muck gets spread on around 30 acres of fields in September when the fields are clear and it is left for a couple of months to rot down and go into the ground before being used as grazing for the new season lambs. 

“It saves us using artificial fertiliser. It’s organic fertilizer versus the artificial stuff which is £300 a tonne. We spread the slurry over winter, it helps the grass grow and we can turn the lambs and sheep out early. The spring lambs have fresh good grass and it hasn’t cost us a fortune in bagged fertiliser. 

“I look at what it does to my ground – new season lambs have lush green grass, a couple of inches tall and they rocket on it. We can produce 12 week old lambs ready for slaughter on grass and milk with no concentrate. Without it, the grass wouldn’t be as beneficial to the new season lambs as it is now. There would be a shortage of grass around February and March. The way we do things here works in rhythm with all the livestock and the environment. We also deal with the carbon footprint of our produce by selling our lambs locally to I.G. Nicholas butchers in Cowbridge, which means they have very few miles to travel from farm to plate,” said Richard.  

Being the third generation to farm the land, Richard says the farming system hasn’t changed much over the years and pollution here has never been an issue.

“I have had the cows all my life, my grandfather used to milk and they gave up milking in the 60s, and then we have had suckler cows ever since. The way we keep them hasn’t changed, back then it was open yards and they were fed on a concrete pad and whatever was left was scraped up and went out. It has never been an issue and we’ve never had a pollution incident here. The river near us has been tested many times and never comes back with any problems.

“I, like so many other farmers, take our responsibility to look after the environment, including our waters, very seriously. We have always been clear that one pollution incident is one too many and those who are guilty of polluting our rivers and watercourse should be held to account. Not many will argue with that. But to introduce these regulations across the whole of Wales, which goes against the recommendations the Welsh Government has received from their own task and finish group, beggars belief and will see many small and medium sized family farms go out of the cattle business,” he said.

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Farming

Small steps to improving pig fertility

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SIMPLE changes to pig management can result in significant improvements in fertility on units struggling with reproduction.

Factors influencing pig fertility are many and varied and can be due to infectious or non-infectious causes, says pig vet Dr Alex Thomsett, of The George Veterinary Group.

Non-infectious causes are often those that producers have more influences over and, in many cases, usually mean very simple changes, Dr Thomsett told farmers participating in a recent FarmingConnect webinar.

“A few small tweaks to management or the approach to reproduction on-farm can easily change a fairly difficult situation into a much better picture without going through a whole heap of blood sampling,’’ she said.

Among these is temperature stress; although this is more commonly associated with heat, cold can be a factor too.

Sows can find it difficult to adapt to changes in temperature and it can lead to more returns of service, poor cycling and higher numbers of abortions.

In outdoor herds, ensure pigs have mud wallows to dissipate heat and, to protect from direct sunlight, create shaded areas.

“This can be done very simply, with a few poles and a length of gale break or similar material,’’ Dr Thomsett advised.

Changes in day length can result in seasonal infertility in the autumn.

As this affects gilts, in particular, Dr Thomsett recommends selecting gilts that are early to go through puberty rather than those that are delayed.

Pigs need a minimum of 16 hours of daylight so ensure light exposure in housing is good – even cleaning whitewashed walls or lightbulbs can make a difference by better reflecting light at sow level on the back of the eye.

Light is more difficult to control in outdoor herds because this system is beholden to the time of the year and, for this reason, Dr Thomsett stressed that it was vital to get all the other issues around fertility working well, including nutrition.

Gilts need the right nutrition balance to prepare them to come into first service and to support them through the first service.

“Gilts and young females are still growing through their first pregnancy and it can often be forgotten that when a pig is lactating, her body is preparing for the next cycle’’, said Dr Thomsett.

In herds with longer lactation periods, Dr Thomsett suggests providing piglets with supplementary feeding to support the sow.

Mycotoxicosis is another consideration and can significantly interfere with herd fertility but Dr Thomsett said this is an unlikely cause if the farm has good quality sources of grain and straw.

Adding binders to feed is the best form of defence because these absorb harmful mycotoxins.

Vaccinations are an important tool for preventing infectious causes of infertility.

Ensure that the vaccination record of any bought-in stock is up to date and quarantine these animals, to ensure they are fit and healthy before entering the herd.

Carrying out a herd health check to establish health status and therefore which vaccinations are needed is greatly beneficial, said Dr Thomsett.

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