Proponents of multi-species swards say that they are an environmentally friendly production system which is kinder to the soil, financially advantageous and more resilient to drought. We asked dairy farmer Ger Buckley, who has been experimenting with multi-species swards for the last four years, what he has learned from his experience so far.
What made you decide to try multi-species swards? I have always been interested in improving soil health. That’s probably the main reason. Multi-species are known to improve biodiversity and also make your farm more resilient. This is becoming more important because of climate change. They can help in periods of drought, and they also potentially expand the grazing season, so there are financial advantages too, particularly in the current environment where chemical fertiliser costs have soared.
How did you get started?
Initially, I started with just 6 acres because I knew I would probably make mistakes, and I wanted to allow time to build up my knowledge. I took my time in years 1 and 2. Now, four years on, I have 31 acres of multi-species, 20 acres of white clover and 52 acres of red clover. In total, that’s almost 30% of the farm.
What do you see as the main pros and cons when comparing multi-species to conventional grass systems that rely on chemical fertiliser?
Up to now, the advantages of conventional systems were that chemical fertiliser was cheap so you could grow lots of grass. Our skills and knowledge have developed around that system. We understand how to grow rye grass using chemical fertiliser. Now that fertiliser prices have increased so much due to the impact of the war in Ukraine, the financial advantages of conventional systems look a lot weaker, and there are also disadvantages in terms of negative impact on biodiversity.
In terms of multi-species, grazing patterns are different, so you need different management skills. You have to learn to overcome things like problems with weed control and limiting the amount of chemical fertiliser that you use. But if you have the will to try it and are open to learning, there are a lot of advantages.
Would you recommend that other farmers give multi-species a try, and if so, what advice would you give them? Absolutely! In terms of advice, I would say to start slowly. Talk it over with your farm advisor and experiment with one or two paddocks before rolling it out across the farm. You have to be prepared to allow time to manage the grass and soil. I made most of my mistakes in the first two years, but I learned from those mistakes, and that has stood to me.
This article was first published in our 2023 Irish Farm Report