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Uni Week 2014. Sustainable Farming: Lucerne

Posted 12 June 2014

Research taking place at Harper Adams University could give farmers more choice when it comes to growing forage crops used in animal production, and in turn, improve livestock diets and well-being.

With import cost rising, the option of growing a perennial protein-rich crop such as lucerne may soon become more appealing,  

Senior Lecturer in Agronomy, Louisa Dines, acknowledges that perceptions amongst farmers may be that it is difficult to establish and grown, but she believes that if basic agronomic guidelines are followed, there should be minimal complexities.

She said: ““Lucerne is a valuable source of forage which naturally fixes nitrogen and is tolerant to drought, heat and some salinity, and offers a source of protein in regions where cropping choice is limited by one of these factors.

“A well-established lucerne crop can offer four to eight years persistency of a forage that is highly digestible and rich in minerals.

“Protein levels can reach 18-22% with yields of up to 12t/ha of dry matter per year with a reduced reliance on purchased fertiliser.

“There is no reason why UK farmers should dismiss this crop, as it will only continue to prove more valuable as the cost of imported protein rises.”

Around 13 million hectares of lucerne are cultivated globally, of which 22,000 hectares are in the UK. The crop is also proven to be of benefit to ruminant digestion and productivity.

Four final year students at Harper Adams University are investigating the effects of using forage crop lucerne in the diets of high-yielding dairy cows.

This programme of work is funded by DairyCo and is being undertaken as part of the DairyCo Grassland, Forage and Soils Research Partnership, a five year research collaboration led by SRUC in partnership with Harper Adams University and the University of Reading.

22-year-old Ross Edwards from Tavistock studies BSc (Hons) Agriculture. He said: “A group of students, including myself, are investigating the effects of lucerne on dairy cow performance.

“I’ve been looking at the intake and performance of the 20 cows taking part in the trial. We’re using four different diets that replace grass with lucerne at different ratios. The cows then eat from special RIC feeders which allow the animals to only eat from the correct bin, and how much they do eat is then measured.

“Hopefully, lucerne will give farmers an extra forage crop to use in the cows’ diets, which is a proven protein source and an alternative to grass silage.”

Weather conditions in the UK are not generally suitable for growing high-yielding protein crops, which has led to soya being imported. The British dairy industry is now looking to develop better-yielding varieties of protein crops, such as lucerne, that can be grown in Britain as an alternative to soya.

 

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