Farm Ireland

Monday 25 March 2019

'Red clover proving once again how important it is in organic farming systems'


Red clover fixes the equivalent of 200kg/ha of nitrogen annually.
Red clover fixes the equivalent of 200kg/ha of nitrogen annually.
Organic vegetable and fruit grower Grace Maher
Grace Maher

Grace Maher

Our weather over the past 12 months has delivered storms, hurricanes, monsoon rains and finally drought. Increased uncertainty in weather patterns has made forward planning extremely difficult for farmers.

While everyone is tired of hearing about grass growth and fodder, the reality is that the effects of the deficit will be felt well into 2019.

Additional fodder supplies from previous years have always been vital in crisis situations like this. The last few weeks have seen farmers - conventional and organic - scrambling to sow forage crops in order to increase their fodder supplies. Like any crisis, it will force many farmers to look at their business models and consider their options in the months ahead.

Organic farmers must feed organic fodder to livestock. For many, good soil structure with high organic matter has been important to sustain crops this year, and once again red clover proved how vital it is in organic farming systems.

John Faulconbridge from Western Seeds was speaking recently at an IOA Field Talk event about the management of red clover leys in forage production on the organic farm, and he stressed that "red clover leys are best utilised as a cutting mixture (three to four cuts per year) in the farm rotation, producing high-volume crops of quality forage".

John, who has been working with organic farmers in Ireland and in the UK since the late 1970s, added: "Crop management is the key for success and the productive life of a four- to five-year red clover ley will be reduced by: grazing, insufficient fertility due to high potential forage yields, cutting crop below three inches and infrequent cutting, ie, two large cuts a year.

"The reduction in crop is due to a reduction in crop plant population in the field, allowing weeds to establish.

"Timing of the first cut is important - cut when the red clover is at big bud stage with a tinge of red showing in the crop which enables you to obtain further cuts in the year.

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"All fertility (manures) needs to be applied to the conservation fields to build up fertility for future forage cropping and the possibility of tillage - this could be growing cereal crops for a couple of years, for home use or cash cropping oats for sale to the miller and then back into the fertility building forage cycle again."

Organic is an option that some farmers might consider, particularly those in tillage, dairy and horticulture as there are obvious market deficits in those sectors.

There is growing interest among dairy processors to get more organic milk, but to date supply has been slow to come on stream, especially as the Organic Farming Scheme is not open to new entrants.

One lesson that this year has taught is that management of organic soils is critical in order to maintain productivity, and in difficult farming years price premiums are vital in order to keep farming sustainable.

Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Association. Email:

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