Just under a year ago, I decided to try some multispecies sward (MSS). There seemed to be a massive interest in them, although I could not find anyone who has experience of growing them in the challenging conditions that we have in the west of NI.
There are lots of people growing MSS very successfully in some of the drier parts of the country, and the feedback is generally very positive, particularly around their anthelmintic properties and ability to grow without any artificial fertiliser.
However, I was struggling to get answers to various questions. I wanted to know whether they would persist in wet conditions and how they would manage when they get a good Fermanagh tramping. I also wanted to know if it would be possible to make good-quality baled silage in changeable weather.
Here in Fermanagh, we are very good at growing perennial ryegrass (sometimes it is difficult to get it utilised), so these MSS have a hard act to follow.
With no-one willing to give me any definitive advice, I was left with only one option and that was to plant some and find out for myself.
At the time, there was a lot of scepticism from other local farmers, but I have never let this stand in my way. I said that I would give an honest assessment (good or bad) on how the sward performs.
I chose a field that was close to the yard so that visitors could see what I was doing and how it was progressing. The field was small, but had some reasonable dry bits and some wetter areas so that I could see if there was any difference in performance under different conditions.
I was not too adventurous in what I planted. I went with perennial ryegrass, timothy, chicory, plantain and white clover. My thinking was that if the chicory and plantain died out, I would still have a good field of grass.
I had really good weather and got good establishment when it was sowed. I was starting to think that it might work here.
This spring, I added more lime to make sure I was on the ball with pH (I had already spread lime when establishing the sward). I also spread slurry with a dribble bar. The field received no artificial fertiliser. It has been split into paddocks, with one batch of cattle grazing across it.
Sadly, this year has been a bit of a disaster weather wise in the west. Grazing conditions have been very difficult.
The grass has done really well, and I have been able to cut part of my MSS to see how it will work in baled silage. However, it only got a short wilt, as the weather was very changeable, so it is not as dry as I would have liked.
The grazing part of my experiment has not been as good. The field has got several bad trampings in wet conditions, and it is not been bearing up well. The plantain and chicory have practically died out in less than a year, especially in the wetter parts. It is certainly disappointing, but I said I would tell it as it happened.
I have not completely given up on it and I will try some more this year, but it looks like it is going to struggle under challenging conditions. I am not sure if it is going to work in this part of the country.
There are a lot of positives in the MSS story, but there are a lot of unanswered questions and still much work to be done before we see its widespread use in the west.