The Turley family, based in Downpatrick, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, are suckler and beef farmers embarking on a new venture with the use of multi-species swards.

The Turleys are farming 160ha of fragmented land in Co. Down. It is a family run farm with Paul, his wife Ethel and their two sons Frank and Thomas all working together. Thomas works part-time on the farm while Frank is farming at home on a full-time basis.

The farming system consists of an Aberdeen Angus and Wagyu beef enterprise, as well as 180 spring-calving and 60 autumn-calving suckler cows.

Wagyu-cross cattle grazing multi-species swards

“The focus here is on producing high-quality beef off grass as best as we can,” said Paul.

“The ethos on the farm is to have a resilient and a profitable farm business that’s a pleasure to operate and will endure into the next generation.”

The soil type on the farm is primarily clay, with a high soil pH. Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels are all relatively good. The farm is very dry and cattle graze grass for a minimum of 240 days/year. The whole farm is laid out in a paddock-grazing system.

L-R: Dr. Francis Lively, Ethel Turley, Paul Turley, Thomas Turley, Jason Rankin, Frank Turley and Dr. David Patterson

All cows and the majority of weanlings are out-wintered on a mix of brassicas and silage, while the majority of the beef cattle are finished off grass.

The Turley’s experience with multi-species swards to date was the focus of a farm walk that took place on Monday (June 13).

Why multi-species?

In April 2021, the Turleys established over 40ac of multi-species swards, ranging from a diverse 18-species mix to a simple pure chicory sward, and a number of the more usual six-species and red-clover silage mixes in between.

The Turleys are part of a group of six farmers taking part in a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) project on investigating the potential of multi-species swards for beef and sheep. The initiative is supported by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) as well as Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and AgriSearch.

Paul said: “The whole multi-species journey started from trying to get profit out of beef and to do that we needed to drive down costs all the time.”

While it may seem unrealistic to grow good yields of forage without artificial fertiliser, it is now becoming a reality for the Turleys.

Apart from the pure chicory mix sown on the farm, no artificial nitrogen (N) fertiliser has been sown since the swards were established in April last year.

While the family admits that sward establishment “was a challenging process”, the swards are now performing well – despite not receiving any artificial N fertiliser.

Seed mixtures used by the Turleys:

Mix name Species included
Six-species sward Perennial ryegrass, Timothy, Red Clover, White Clover, Chicory, Plantain
‘No grass’ sward Red clover, White clover, Plantain
18-species sward Perennial ryegrass (Tetraploid and Diploid), Cocksfoot, Timothy, Fescue (Meadow and Tall), Alsike clover,Red clover, White clover, Sweet clover, Vetch, Plantain, Chicory, Sainfoin, Birdsfoot, Trefoil, Burnet, Yarrow, Sheep’s Parsley, Knapweed
Red-clover silage mix Late perennial ryegrass (29% Aspect, 21% Solas),50% Red clover blend
Drought-resistant mix Cocksfoot, Timothy, Meadow Fescue, Red clover, White clover, Plantain, Chicory, Barnet, Yarrow, Sheep’s Parsley, Sanfoin.
(Kale nurse crop)

Paul and Frank both emphasised “the mindset change” that is required to establish and successfully manage the multi-species swards.

Paul outlined: “There’s a definite change of mindset when you move to multi-species. Looking back now, it was so easy just to grow perennial ryegrass, put on the nitrogen, put on the cattle and it served us very well at the time.”

The five different multi-species swards on the Turley Farm:

Paul added: “You can’t grow grass without nitrogen so if you can’t put it on from a bag, you have to get it from somewhere else. The clovers are the main drivers of nitrogen on the farm now.”

Cattle performance on multi-species swards

A trial on the Turley farm is currently underway this year where a batch of 100 Wagyu-cross cattle (42 11-month-old bucket-reared cattle and 58 eight-month-old suckler-bred cattle) was divided evenly across two grazing platforms.

One group was put to multi-species swards while the other group was put to a conventional grass-only sward.

The study started on March 21, 2022 and the cattle were weighed on May 31, 2022.

Cattle performance as of May 31, 2022:

Batch Average daily weight gain
Cattle on multi-species sward: 0.71kg/day
Cattle on conventional grass sward: 0.82kg/day

Contrary to what studies elsewhere have found, the cattle on the conventional grass sward have performed 15% better than the cattle on the multi-species sward.

The conventional grass sward had been receiving standard application rates of fertiliser while the multi-species sward received no fertiliser.

Paul admitted he was quite surprised when he saw the weight results, saying “both batches looked very even”.

The cattle on the multi-species grass have access to higher trace element levels from the herbs, and the anthelmintic properties of some of the species in the multi-species have resulted in low Faecal Egg Counts (FEC) to date overall.

It was also outlined that the family is still learning how to best manage the multi-species swards and it was suggested that trying to achieve a full-graze out on the swards lowered the cattle’s intake potential.

The multi-species was topped after the third rotation and Paul explained that a mindset change is needed to accept that these toppings should not be considered as waste.

Take-home message

One of the key message from the farm walk was that farmers have the ability to reduce fertiliser use through multi-species swards and the inclusion of clover.

The swards can be used to improve drought resistance, reduce anthelmintic use and reduce emissions while improving the farm’s carbon sequestration ability.

While multi-species swards have many benefits, many knowledge that gaps in knowledge remain and further research into them is needed.

The swards are more challenging to manage and farmers also need to watch out for bloat when grazing livestock on multi-species swards.

Paul advised farmers considering multi-species mixes but are unsure of whether it suits them or not to “try a simple six-species mix” on a small area of ground. He said that if it doesn’t work out, the farmer will still be left with a good perennial ryegrass sward and clover sward.