Farmers, who have experienced no negative results grazing ewes on red clover, have shared their experiences.
Four farmers led their own research and found that nitrogen-fixing plants can benefit farm businesses and the environment without impacting sheep fertility.
Their research challenges some beliefs that clover can cause temporary infertility in ewes when grazed during the breeding season.
Older research found grazing ewes exclusively on red clover can impact fertility as the plant contains phyto-oestrogens.
Marc Jones, who farms sheep and beef cattle across 700-acres in Powys, was one of those involved in the trial.
ADAS conducted the trial, which yielded “unexpected, positive” results, in an Innovative Farmers’ field lab.
He said: “We have been putting ewes on leys with red clover for six or seven years now. Although we have never seen any negative impacts, we wanted to have some evidence to back it up.”
“A lot of farmers are hesitant about giving it a go, but the original research was done so long ago and with ewes grazing pure red clover, which is not how we use it.”
“We have been able to prove that growing it alongside other herbs and legumes does have higher digestibility for the ewes, without impacting pregnancy scanning rates.”
“It is a good technique for flushing the sheep and finishing lambs – and young cattle also do well on it.
“We do different tests and trials every year. However, putting some figures to it with research done on real farms makes a huge difference.”
Gillian Preece, a sheep farmer, and senior consultant at ADAS, coordinates the field lab trial.
She said that it is “clear to see” there are no negative results from grazing ewes on red clover and that farmers can “have confidence” in this practice.
“The ewes that mated on the red clover actually scanned higher. This was unexpected because we were setting out to prove no negative effect and what we ended up with was a positive effect.
“We want to encourage a wider uptake and less fear across the industry, especially as it is such a good plant for nitrogen-fixing.”
“This field lab was great for spreading knowledge as the farmers did not know each other before and are geographically spread out. They are all able to share findings with each other and then take it back to their local areas.”
She explained that the positive result will likely have been due to the sheep eating a more diverse diet.
The herbal ley contained a variety of other plants, including chicory, plantain, and wildflowers, which are good for nutrition.
He said: “We do not get any Stewardship payments for red clover in Wales, so we are doing it purely for business purposes.”
“The more red clover we can use, the better. It has helped us to really cut back on nitrogen costs, and it is also good for drought resistance.”
They farm in a “dry” spot that has the same average rainfall as Cambridge, and it has been “really dry” for the last five years.
Artificial fertiliser alternative
She explained they have had to make some “rapid” changes. Red clover is deep rooting, so it means their pastures “hold up better” and give them nitrogen at the same time.
“We started off with just 20-acres using red clover and have gradually increased it over the years, which has helped us to decrease that dependency on nitrogen.”
“Without the legumes, we would be looking at paying huge costs this year. We would have gone from £35,000 last year to £90,000 this year,” Preece concluded.
Integrate red clover
Innovative Farmers’ manager, Rebecca Swinn, said: “Farmers have a right to demand appropriate research, so it has been great to support this group.”
“They challenged existing research which did not apply to the majority of real-life farming situations.”
“I hope the results encourage more farm businesses to integrate red clover and reap its many benefits,” Swinn concluded.