By Debbie James

Multi-species leys can perform as well as traditional ryegrass in upland regions, a three-year study in Wales has found.

The European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Wales study put seed mixes incorporating meadow fescue, Timothy and a festulolium, together with plantain and chicory to the test on three upland beef and sheep farms.

The results of the study show that a multi-species ley has yield benefits in early and late season production.

Yield data collected from the trial showed a clear yield benefit in the year after establishment on one of the farms compared to ryegrass and white clover and there were marginal gains at the other two.

Although there were no clear differences between the total average yields of the multi-species and control leys, in the first full year of production there were clear seasonal production benefits from the multi-species leys with improved spring and autumn growth on all sites in the year after establishment.

Independent grassland specialist Chris Duller, who carried out the monitoring work, said a boost in spring performance was noted on two of the sites in the second year.

“This seasonal pattern may be influenced by the presence of the festulolium and plantain which both appeared to grow well at lower temperatures,’’ he said.

Incorporated in the multi-species seed mix were four grass species, two legumes and two herb species; the conventional ley was a standard ryegrass and white clover mixture typical of that grown in an upland sheep and beef system.

At 8kg/acre, the multi-species mixture had less perennial ryegrass than the control at 13kg/acre.

Both were established at the same time on each farm, with establishment dates ranging from June on the earliest farm to early September on the latest.

Mr Duller says a decision was made for inclusion of the herbs to be at a lower rate than some mixtures on the market since these can dominate the sward at higher rates, jeopardising persistency.

One of the farms involved in the study was Gellifeddgaer, a grass-based farm near Blackmill, Bridgend, where farmer Richard Morgan produces lamb and beef.

Mr Morgan grew the leys on well-drained loam over sandstone on 4.8ha of land at 230-265m above sea level on land which had previously been used for growing stubble turnips.

At establishment, soils were at pH 5.6, P index 1 and K index 2.

The farm has an annual rainfall level of 1,385mm.

The leys were established at the beginning of June 2018, immediately prior to an intense dry spell, but there was sufficient rainfall to allow the leys to establish; in fact the chicory and plantain in the multi-species ley thrived.

In early August, 193 Improved Welsh x Texel lambs were introduced to both leys. A week later they were joined by another 87 lambs to keep on top of the growth.

Lambs initially showed a preference for the conventional ley but quickly adapted.

Lambs were removed on August 20 with 125 weighing 40kg drawn for slaughter.

In early September 170 sheep were re-introduced for a week followed by 200 ewes and lambs in the third week of September.

Additional grazing carried on until November.

Forage production through September was assessed – the herbal ley plot grew at 67kgDM/ha/day, fractionally, but not significantly, lower than the control.

The dry matter content of the herbal ley was consistently lower than the grass and clover, which may have negative impacts on animal intakes, particularly in wet conditions.

The herbs may also have out-competed and checked the grass development in that ley as grass growth appeared better in the conventional ley. Clover levels were good in both.

The lambs grazed the grass ley much tighter than the multi-species.

In the first full year of production, total forage production was 30 per cent greater in the multi-species ley.

As well as provide feed for his flock, Mr Morgan hopes that growing these leys might help him access post-Basic Payment Scheme support.

“They capture carbon from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil so they perform an environmental good,’’ he says.