A new consortium of academics and industry leaders believes red clover could be a sustainable protein source for monogastric livestock, and a source of high-value metabolites.

Half of the soya meal imported into the UK is fed to pigs, poultry and farmed fish. But concerns about its sustainability sees a new collaboration between Aberystwyth University, Germinal and Blue Sky Botanics, with funding from the SMART Expertise programme, part of the European Regional Development Fund delivered by Welsh Government and European Union.

Red clover is a high-quality feed for ruminant livestock with environmental benefits. It’s high in protein and, as it is nitrogen fixing, improves soil quality and reduces the need for nitrogen fertiliser applications.

It can be grown successfully across the UK, with modern varieties lasting at least three years without a fall in yield. Red clover therefore has an important place in sustainable livestock systems but its use with monogastric livestock has yet to be exploited. The new research aims to develop a red clover suitable for this group.

Commenting on the new research, Dr David Lloyd, IBERS head of legume breeding at Aberystwyth University, said: “Red clover has very high-quality protein, with an amino acid profile that compares well with soya.

"It has a far higher protein yield than pulses like peas and beans and can be grown reliably throughout the country without application of pesticides and fungicides. It’s used extensively to feed to ruminants like cows and sheep, but the protein would need to be extracted from the plant to feed to monogastrics.

“However, red clover contains the enzyme polyphenol oxidase (PPO), which forms complexes with proteins. This is normally thought of as an advantage, as it slows breakdown of protein by microorganisms in the rumen, making more of it available to feeding ruminants.

"Unfortunately, it also complicates the extraction of protein from red clover. We now have low PPO red clovers in development that could simplify this and provide the replacement for imported soya protein that our livestock farmers need.”

The project’s first step is to extract the soluble protein and carry out small-scale feeding trials. With forage specialists, Germinal, breeders will further develop the low PPO red clovers into commercial varieties.

Commenting, Paul Billings, Germinal GB managing director, said: “What makes these varieties particularly attractive is their potential as a break crop in arable systems without any need for on-farm livestock. Red clover fixes far more nitrogen than pulses and doesn’t rely on chemical applications like peas and beans do, so it fits well with carbon neutrality targets.

"Red clover’s ability to smother out weeds like blackgrass has also not escaped us. They also have important potential as a cash crop for Welsh agriculture. Red clover grows well in areas commonly thought of as economically unviable, including the uplands. With the current uncertainty regarding future farm subsidies, this can only be of benefit to Wales.”

As well as protein, the extraction process has the potential to provide high value by-products. Red clover contains phytoestrogens of interest to the pharmaceutical industry for their possible use in cancer therapies and other medical applications. Another extraction by-product is pinitol, an anti-diabetic agent. IBERS will be working with the third member of the consortium, Blue Sky Botanics, to investigate the viability of producing health products that exploit these compounds.