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Grow your own nitrogen to get lambs up and running.

Byline: Our Correspondent

With profit margins getting ever tighter, more farmers are returning to traditional methods to reduce the need for expensive feeds. In the run-up to Welsh Sheep 2007 near Abergavenny next week Matt Mellor, managing director of ABC Limited, Shrewsbury, takes a look at the issue and the system used on the farm hosting the event

A RETURN to traditional farming practices combined with the use of ultra-modern seed varieties is the new way forward on many pasture-based farms in Wales.

And the change is being driven by economics and the environment, according to Brychan Gretton, who has farmed in Monmouthshire for 60 years and been a seed merchant for 40 of them.

"I think sheep farming in particular has gone full circle," says Brychan.

"I remember we used red clover to finish lambs in the early 1950s, and then it went out of fashion. No one developed any new varieties and people began to use concentrates instead."

But since the late 1990s, red clover breeding programmes have resumed at Iger in Aberystwyth and varieties recently launched are making headway on livestock farms in Wales and beyond.

The attraction of the new varieties is a combination of their high dry matter output and exceptional protein yields, according to Brychan, who has been advising on seed varieties for fodder crops throughout his farming career.

"But I don't study the yield," he says. "You can just tell by the look of the stock."

Of particular interest this year is the Seed Mark AberHSG 2 mixture. This short-to-medium-term cutting and grazing mixture contains AberRuby - the first of the new generation of red clovers - and the high-sugar perennial ryegrass AberDart and high-sugar hybrid AberEcho.

It is varieties such as these which have attracted the interest of sheep and beef farmer Nigel Turner, who hosts the NSA Welsh Sheep Event on May 23.

On his Graig Farm in Cross Ash, near Abergavenny, he sowed a mixture including red clover last autumn on set-aside land and will graze it with sheep from August.

Elsewhere on his 617 acre farm - which extends to an altitude of 1,400ft and supports a flock of 1,100 ewes - he has many high-sugar ryegrass and white clover swards.

"Any fodder from your own ground at times of high feed prices is a plus," says Nigel.

"You don't want everything coming down the road on a lorry, especially with lamb pellets just up pounds 20 a tonne."

As a former arable farmer, he treats his grass swards as an important crop and manages them as part of a fairly traditional rotation.

"Old, tired leys are unproductive," he says. "If they're not growing as they should in spring then it's time to plough them up."

A typical rotation is likely to be two years of roots, such as swedes or turnips, and two years of cereals (for feed use of the farm) followed by a long-term ley. The root crops are an important component of the rotation, providing a useful opportunity to clean up wild grasses and other weeds.

Although leys at Graig Farm will last 12 years on average - as on hilly land in particular Nigel wants to avoid ploughing - he recognises that red clover leys are suited to a shorter duration. Grassland in general will first be grazed by sheep from April, cut once for silage in June and the aftermath grazed by weaned lambs, with maximum use made of a relatively short growing season.

"Some lambs will finish with just clover and grass," says Nigel, "and most will also have some roots."

Fertiliser use is minimal and includes farmyard manure on most cut fields plus a small application of artificial fertiliser.

"Everybody is trying to limit nitrogen use," adds Brychan, implicating environmental as well as financial considerations.

"And if you have a good ley with plenty of clover you can - it's what I call 'grow your own nitrogen'."

The key to finishing so many lambs from home-grown fodder alone is good grass-land management, concludes Brychan.

And if the traditional tenets of grassland production prevail throughout the industry, then the methods he practised in his youth - and a heavier reliance on homegrown forage - might just be here to stay.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 15, 2007
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