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Seeding recipe breakthrough could boost grasslands and feed cattle

Published 31/12/2015

The innovation could offer farmers a more holistic approach to rearing beef and dairy livestock
The innovation could offer farmers a more holistic approach to rearing beef and dairy livestock

Statisticians have cracked a code for a bumper crop to feed cattle with a new seeding recipe to dramatically boost grasslands.

As well offering farmers a more holistic approach to rearing beef and dairy livestock it could also drastically cut the amount of fertiliser going into soils and save them a pretty penny.

And with agriculture fingered as being the biggest contributor to carbon pollution in Ireland the varied planting and diet could also help with the sector's image ahead of a target for a 40% cut in emissions by 2030.

Dr Caroline Brophy, of NUI Maynooth, spearheaded a big data project which examined results from mixed planting at 31 sites across Europe, including three in Ireland, where different local climates and environments affect production.

Some of the best results came from planting red or white clover in with traditional pasture plants such as rye grass like lolium perenne or the dactylis glomerata, commonly known as cock's-foot or orchard grass.

"What we saw from the study was any kind of mixing gave a strong diversity effect," she said.

"Think of putting two types of species together. If one is deeper rooted than the other, it is able to go further down for nutrients and water, so you utilise the system better."

On average there was an 18% increase in yield when types of legumes, such as clover, were mixed in.

Essentially the study tests whether using a mix of plants which are fast or slow to establish and take shallow or deep roots is better than using just one heavily fertilised grass.

Dr Brophy, a lecturer in NUI Maynooth's Department of Mathematics and Statistics, is moving the study on to look at how diversity might protect against climate extremes, a growing concern even in Ireland in light of recent floods.

"If you end up with a summer without much rain or a winter that is colder, how do you cope with that? Are there effectively insurance measures you can put in place to protect yourself; so we are asking can diversity protect against climate extremes," she said.

Irish agriculture, with 6.5 million cattle and 3.5 million sheep, accounts for 32.6% of Ireland's total greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Brophy explained that creating a diverse pasture is nothing knew, they are more resistant to weeds and cope better with changes in local climates like increasingly dry or wet summers.

"Diversity goes back as far as Darwin," she said.

While the project has collaboration with Teagasc Dr Brophy was keen to urge a greater connection with farmers on the ground to test planting schemes.

"I think it's happening a little bit already. If you have a system that works why try messing with it," she said.

"I don't want to put words in farmers' mouths but I think there is a a small movement towards putting legumes in among the grass. I think the farming community are open to it."

One farmer from Ardfield near Clonakilty in Co Cork, Tommy Moyles, has already seized the initiative by turning his land from tillage to pasture but allowing a strong clover content in his grass and reducing his artificial nitrogen usage from 26 tonnes to 14 since 2012.

Some of the research has been published in Ecology Letters but due to the scale of the data mined from the grassland test site there are huge possibilities to develop analysis on improving grasslands.

In the 31 site study, which also used bases in Sweden, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Iceland and Italy, legumes like clover were separated from grasses and large fields cut up to five times in one year.

Dr Brophy has moved on to a new project on the reliability of Met Eireann weather forecasts and how they could be used for better predictions of grass growth down to weekly production.

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