Multi-species sowing for best drought resilience

Multi-species cover crop will provide drought resilient feed for years to come


Beef
Animal nutritionist Megan Davies and agronomist Guy Webb, Agriwest Rural at Forbes, showing a handful of perennial diverse pasture surviving and established on 42mm of in-crop rain.

Animal nutritionist Megan Davies and agronomist Guy Webb, Agriwest Rural at Forbes, showing a handful of perennial diverse pasture surviving and established on 42mm of in-crop rain.

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An experimental cover crop producing livestock feed at Forbes will be open for public inspection late this month

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The future of cover cropping for the production of livestock fodder is an exciting one with potential clearly visible at Forbes, where local agronomist Guy Webb will host an open day, September 23, to explain the benefits of this long-term investment.

Half committed farmers will baulk at the $150 a hectare required to establish his perennial pasture design. It also comes with a requirement to be treated like the best crop of canola and planted into clean, long fallow paddocks with a full moisture profile already prepared with lime, phosphorous and compost.

Seed gobbles up most of the budget because sowing involves higher rates to incorporate an even spread of legumes, brassicas, medics, clovers and herbs.

But Mr Webb reminds the nay-sayers that a decade of feed might be expected from well managed plots during which time a diverse web of roots and their exudates host microbes and micro-fungi which circulate nutrient. This certainly spreads the risk.

Cash crops following such a carbon sequestering rotation will give back to the farmer in spades.

"Evidence coming out of the US is certainly helping to drive renewed interest in what is essentially an old way of doing things," said Mr Webb.

"For us dealing with varied rainfall and, here at Forbes, contending with more summer dominant storm events, we need to design pastures to take advantage of rain when it ever does fall."

A variety of species growing on a Forbes property include lucerne, chicory, medics and clovers that together create a robust and resilient long-term fodder crop.

A variety of species growing on a Forbes property include lucerne, chicory, medics and clovers that together create a robust and resilient long-term fodder crop.

Key to the success of Mr Webb's design is the use of early medics and late arrow leaf clover which help support chicory and lucerne in filling the feed gap.

The system also incorporates perennial grasses which use nitrogen produced by legumes to grow a fibrous bulk of stems and roots which absorb summer's sudden storms.

"Those heavy rain events often come at a time when lucerne on its own is bare, the soil surface hard and exposed and water usually just runs off and away.

"We're trying to build a self-regulating system, Mr Webb says.

The ingredients matter, with hard seeded nitrogen-fixing clover chosen for its ability to emerge over time, rather than all at once.

Chicory has been proving an especially resilient and nutritious feed while doubling as a bloat retardant.

With its deep tap root, "like a carcase in the soil" as Mr Webb explains, the herb appears to get on very well - in close proximity - with lucerne and together there is not much room for competition.

"Weeds just don't present," he said.

An important step in ensuring this perennial pasture continues is to let it go to seed in its first year and to do this might mean keeping livestock away during that establishment period.

"Clover and medics are prolific seeders in their first year but you must make sure they build up that seed bank. Same with Chicory. You might have to treat them with kid gloves," said Mr Webb.

"But it's about building a system that makes the farm more resistant to drought. Our emerging covercrop, established in the autumn, is surviving on 42mm of in-crop rain. Other crops two to three years old are still delivering, and providing ground cover.

In a good season this diverse cover crop delivers in a big way. In 2017 Mr Webb decided to knock the top off his hip-high paddock with a slasher to keep it under control.

"When it's on, it's on," he said. "It can be breathtaking.

"I think it's an unbreakable system and economically it is very rewarding.

A similar pasture, established two years ago by Jack Farthing, west of Forbes, calculated a daily weight gain off that pasture at 419 grams a day.

"And when livestock are given a choice of feed they produce meat with more Omega 3 fats. It's because their getting a balanced diet and their meat and flavour responds in kind."

The field day is at Adam Nicholson's property, 'Coraver', 1308 Pinnacle Road Forbes, September 23 from 9am. Contact guywebb@agriwestrural.com.au.

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