Sheep grazing on Lucerne

This field lab explores using lucerne to improve the resilience of sheep systems in dry arable areas.

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Field Lab Timeline

    1/31/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Data collection - weather data

    Data collection - weather data
  • 2/1/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Meeting - trial design and mortality data training

    Meeting - trial design and mortality data training
  • 3/18/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Blood samples from lucerne and control group

    Blood samples from lucerne and control group
  • 6/16/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Data collection and open event

    Data collection and open event
  • 7/30/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Weaning and data collection

    Weaning and data collection
  • 10/14/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Meeting - first year review

    Meeting - first year review
  • 12/15/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Annual report

    Annual report
  • 3/15/2021 12:00:00 AM
  • 2nd year of trials commences

    2nd year of trials commences
  • 6/14/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Open event

    Open event
  • 10/14/2021 11:00:00 PM
  • Second year review meeting

    Second year review meeting
  • 12/15/2021 12:00:00 AM
  • Annual report

    Annual report
For further information hover over the above milestone marks
  • Discussion

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  • Achievements

    April 2021

    EVENT: Farm visit in June

    On the afternoon of 8th June, David Cross and Liz Genever will host an open event at David's farm. This will be an opportunity to view the three grazing comparisons this year and discuss his experiences so far. To comply with Covid restrictions, more than one session may take place during the afternoon.

    Please register your interest by contacting

    Milestone: Open event

    April 2021

    2nd year trial details

    This year, all paddocks will be grazed by triplet bearing mixed aged ewes and twin bearing ewe lambs mixed together (last year, twin-bearing ewe lambs grazed on lucerne whilst mixed aged ewes grazed on the comparison grass, clover and plantain mix).

    This year, another grazing option has been added so there are now three comparisons:
    1) Lucerne
    2) A legume and herb rich sward mix suitable for GS4 option for environmental schemes
    3) Grass, clover & herb mix

    As lucerne doesn't hold any salt but is high in protein, sheep have access to rock salt and hay to help prevent bloat.

    Milestone: 2nd year of trials commences

    April 2021

    Fertility rates higher on lucerne

    The pregnancy scanning results of the sheep revealed higher fertility rates for the sheep fed on lucerne, linked to better weight gain and body condition scores.

    Milestone: 2nd year of trials commences

    March 2021

    Winter flooding

    Around an acre of the lucerne was affected by winter flooding and was under water for 2 weeks. It appears to be recovering but growth has been hampered compared to the rest of the lucerne.

    Milestone: Meeting - first year review

    November 2020

    Grazing management on lucerne: tips from Prof Derrick Moot

    From the session with Prof. Derrick Moot on 10th November.

    Key messages on livestock grazing preferences, health and management:

    - Livestock prefer 70% legume and 30% grass. Create access to pasture so that the animals can move freely between the two areas ('landscape farming')
    - An ideal entry point for lambs to start feeding on lucerne is when lucerne is 30cm in height
    - If grazing with cattle, graze to similar heights but beware that cattle are more at risk of the health implications from overgrazing, e.g. bloat, red gut.
    - Leave out salt blocks for livestock. Lucerne is sodium deficient, high quality feed, meaning there is a higher risk of clostridial bacteria.
    - Don't put livestock on lucerne with leaf spot if they're about to go into mating. The high levels of coumestrol hormone will trick their bodies into believing they are pregnant so decreases the ovulation rate and therefore therefore the conception and lambing rates. It doesn't cause any post mating problems.
    - It is more difficult to avoid issues of photosensitivity - livestock will need to be removed from the lucerne fields entirely.
    - Nitrate poisoning can very easily kill. Be careful about flushes after sudden rainfall. Heavy rainfall after drought causes a sudden uptake of nitrate in the plant. If conditions are dull (no sun), there is not sufficient energy to convert nitrates into proteins. It is important to wait until the sun comes out, then graze.

    More learnings below...

    Milestone: Meeting - first year review

    November 2020

    Discussion and Q&A session with Derrick Moot

    An open session took place where farmers learnt from the experiences and research of Prof. Derrick Moot, who has years of experience researching lucerne grazing in dryland systems in New Zealand. He discussed how to design a grazing system to make the most of lucerne's excellent spring growth.

    Key learnings on establishment and growth:

    - Autumn is an important period for building nitrogen reserves in the root and recharging lucerne. Rest lucerne fields over the autumn when the plant is less productive to avoid killing it over a couple of years from overgrazing.
    - Avoid glyphosate on new stands. It attaches to the sugars and kills the plant underground. Instead, do a hard graze so that there is no leaf left. If glyphosate is applied to leaves, the plant will translocate the chemical down to the roots and kill the lucerne.
    - In Derrick's experience, lucerne even grows well on clay soils
    - Plant lucerne where soils are deeper

    Continued above...

    Milestone: Meeting - first year review

    July 2020


    Results so far:

    - The lucerne field has shown consistent growth and drought resilience. It grew well over a very dry 10 week period this spring/summer, whilst other grass fields browned off, even though the sheep stocking rate is 50% higher for lucerne than for the grass.

    - For ewe lambs (young lambs which now have their own lambs in litters of two), typically one lamb is taken away and hand-reared whilst the other stays with the ewe lamb, to reduce the strain on the mother. In the lucerne field, both lambs are able to remain because lucerne has 4 times more protein than the other grasses and grows freely, making grazing to get the nutrition required for the day quicker and easier. "The ewe lambs are in the best condition that they've been in". The new lambs will grow up feeding only on lucerne. A hay rack is also set up in the field to be eaten by the sheep try to counteract the richness and bloating effects of lucerne.

    This field lab was featured in BBC 4's Farming Today programme on 29th July.

    Milestone: Weaning and data collection

    April 2020

    Webinar - all welcome to join

    Join us online on 12th May at 6pm for a webinar hosted by Innovative Farmers: 'Can we graze sheep on lucerne in the UK? A webinar for farmers and advisers with lessons from New Zealand'.

    Register here --->


    David Cross -
    David farms a dry mixed farm in North Norfolk and started the trial as he was looking for ways to provide reliable forage during the summer. David has experience working on and managing a beef and sheep units in New Zealand and North America, where lucerne is widely used. He will talk through his learnings from his time in New Zealand and how he intends to apply these lessons in the UK.

    Dr Liz Genever, AHDB and farmer -
    Liz Genever is the researcher and coordinator of this farmer-led trial. She has a technical background in sheep and beef fertility and breeding, and grass and forage management. Liz will introduce the plan for the project, which runs over two grazing seasons.

    Both David and Liz will talk about how they are approaching and mitigating potential risks to sheep health related to the research, including strict monitoring and early interventions to prevent gut issues and deficiencies. They will also explore the grazing pattern and rotation plan that’s being carried out to ensure regrowth and cover practicalities around establishment and why they chose to grow pure stands and not mixes.

    The event will be chaired by Kate Still, a farming advisor at the Soil Association, specialising in livestock health and welfare.

    Register here --->

    Milestone: Open event

    April 2020

    Initial observations on lamb health and weeds

    One of the farmers' observations so far: "We have just started lambing on the lucerne seems to be no problems so fair with lambs popping out and to their feet as normal, also no visible signs of any adverse affects on the ewes and plenty of milk about... so all is well (finger crossed). The ewes have done a nice job of taking out most of the annual weeds and the cover is still building". Further measurements to come...

    Milestone: Data collection and open event

    March 2020

    Blood samples taken

    Blood samples have been taken from sheep fed on lucerne and those in the control group (no lucerne). The samples will provide data on energy, protein and trace elements - cobalt and selenium.

    Milestone: Blood samples from lucerne and control group

    February 2020

    Trial design decided

    Full details of the trial schedule can be found in the documents section of this page.

    Blood samples will be taken every March from the control group and the lambs fed on lucerne. This will assess energy, protein and trace elements of cobalt and selenium.

    Faecal egg counts will be taken from ewes and lambs in various months between March and September each year.

    Lamb eight week weights and 90 day weights will be recorded, as well as mortality data.

    Sward height of the lucerne crop, plus stock numbers will be recorded from July to November.

    Milestone: Meeting - trial design and mortality data training

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