By Andrew Best, Watson Seeds

With many livestock producers looking to reduce feed costs, there has been a renewed interest in forage crops, and there are a wide range of options available, according to Andrew Best of Watson Seeds, who has seen excellent results with an number of seed mixtures.

In this article, he points out the pros and cons of various crops and how a kale-based mixture with an inclusion of swedes is proving particularly popular across the country.

The dark and dreary days at the turn of the year have not got a lot going for them, the festive season is over, just the beaters shoots left and the sheep scans to study and contemplate.

To compound the misery there is not a lot of forage left in the fields and we are in to what they used to call “the hungry gap”.

The lush grass of May seems very far away and what is available is expensive in feeding terms for the return achieved.

However, there are many forage choices that have the potential to feed animals outside during the months of January to March. They will not suit all farms, depending on the system or soil type, but they are worth considering. These forage crops offer a terrific ME and protein and certainly fill the hungry gap if used correctly.

Basically, the principle is to develop a crop that has been planted in the main growing months and to utilise the energy and protein later in the hungry months of early autumn and winter whilst the crop is still in the field.

It's the same as growing silage, harvest in the summer and eat during the winter. However, on average, the energy and protein of these forage crops surpasses the quality of silage produced on most beef and sheep units.

For example, we at Watson Seeds analysed a number of forage crops during 2017. See the results below.


Dry Matter ME MJ/Kg Crude Protein %

Average of beef silage

samples entered for 2017

AgriScot silage comp’ 30.3 10.8 12.2

Rape/Kale Hybrid Leaf 11.8 13.05 23

Rape/Kale Hybrid Stem 12.7 11.65 22

Kale Leaf 13.3 12.25 21

Kale Stem 12.4 12.25 18

From the figures, it is evident there is a lot of potential in growing fodder crops. If we compare the costs on a fodder basis, the results are impressive, but you must be mindful of what you can and cannot grow and what suits your system and personal preferences – it is not for every farm.

For example, Andrew Marchant of Clonhie Farm, Penpont, Dumfries and Galloway (one of the new Monitor Farms in Scotland in conjunction with QMS and AHDB Cereal and Oilseed) required a feed for the period of January to March for his flock of lambing ewes to reduce his dependence on bought in concentrate.

The main considerations were as follows:

• ME

• Protein

• Winter hardiness (bearing in mind it has got to last until March).

• Site

• When could the crop be established.

• What is the most suitable crop to provide energy and protein.

• Soil type

• Fertility of soil

Main problems:

• Weather dependent.

• What is the actual yield. We do not know what is available until December.

• Best way to utilise the crop in the field.

Eventually Andrew Marchant decided on a mixture of kale and swede. Sowing the correct ratio of kale to swedes is critical as too many swede plants can adversely affect the slower establishing kale component of the mix.

Over many years the Watson Seeds Kale 2 mix appears to have the ideal ratio. The crop produced is predominately a kale crop with some swedes.

Andrew established the mixture in May and early June whilst the field was sandy and no real problems of soil fertility (pH of 6.1 and p and k indices of 2-3). The sandy soil type was a huge advantage for a deep rooted crop like kale to get well established, with further advantages when it comes to eating of the crop.

On December 5, last year the forage crop was assessed by cutting and weighing several 1m² sections. The average weight per m² was 6.7kg of fresh weight, at a 15% dry matter (DM) this would equate to 10t of DM per/ha. The size of the field is 3.7ha – so 10 x 3.7 = 37,000kg DM. If we assume a 90% utilisation we are left with 33,300kg DM.

A ewes requirement is 1kg DM/head/day (1m² /ewe/day). Therefore, this forage area has the potential to feed 314 ewes for 100 days.

When the crop costings are analysed as the following:

Seed: £ 420

Fertiliser, lime, slug pellets: £1093

Cultivations: £500

Total: £2013

Total: £544/ha (£218/acre)

kg DM grown: 5.4p/kg DM (£54.40/t DM).

Photo – This field, farmed by John and Marion Tilson and daughter Wanda's Wedderlie unit at Westruther, Gordon, received a heavy dose of dung prior to ploughing.

"Treating the kale and swede seeds with Cruiser is a must for us to help protect the crops from flea beetle damage," said John.

"The inclusion of swedes in the mixture provides a week to 10 days extended grazing after the kale has been eaten off. All our lambs are finished on kale and our stock ewe lambs are then wintered."

Photo – (Alistair Freeland-Cook, Clifton Cote Farm, Yetholm, Kelso, Scottish Borders).

Over in the Borders the Freeland-Cook family successfully grow Watson Seeds’ Kale 1 mixture with an inclusion of swedes.

Alistair Freeland-Cook is seen here in a great field at the end of the Bowmont Valley. He sows his crops at the end of May, early June. It receives a split application of a compound. The first application is just after the contractor has sprayed for flea beetle and they follow his marks to minimise crop damage. The final dressing is Royal Highland Show time. A total of 100 units of nitrogen are applied.

"We use kale as a break crop to improve grassland and have used Maris Kestrel for more than 10 years. We find it grows well and provides plenty of feed for over 1500 ewe hoggs. It is a very simple effective way of wintering the hoggs and they always look well going into the spring," said Alistair.

Photo – (Johnny Watson seen here with Ian Duncan-Millar at Tirinie examining the kale/swede mix last winter).

"The discussion at the Moredun Roadshow meeting last August at our farm at Tirinie, seemed to veer away from health to nutrition when we visited the field of kale scheduled to feed our ewe flock through the winter," said Ian.

"It was mixture of Maris Kestrel (1.5kg/ha) and Invitation (0.5kg/ha) broadcast on May 24, with 300kg 16;16;16 , and a pre-emergence spray of Sultan and Centium. The only other treatment was an additional 250kg/ha of N34 and a spray of Hallmark to control flea beetle.

"I was delighted with the way the crop fed the 400 ewes with twins and triplets from scanning through to lambing, with effective rationing behind an electric fence. Not only did the ewes thrive and milk well, but the grass got a much needed rest and jumped when eventually the temperature started to rise in April.

"The inclusion of swedes extends the grazing period of the field. We also grow another field of kale/swedes to finish the Blackie lambs, and are finding the kale more dependable than the precision sown swedes we used previously, with supplementary feed is not really required until well into January," he added.

Last year, the innovation was to spray off a field of grass (in rotation) with Glyphosate, spread lime and fertiliser and direct drill on three consecutive days. The grass died back as the kale came through. A strong crop ensued with no further treatment except for some additional N as before. Therefore, time and money was saved in seed-bed preparation (no lifting stones etc) and no expensive pre-em herbicides.

"The big bonus was the clean lambs that stayed on top of the ground through a really mucky period, when a plough prepared field would have been a real mess. Surely, if a case were needed, a positive role for glyphosate," concluded Ian.