Thursday, 1 August 2013

French lessons in lucerne production

Alternative forages have risen up the farming agenda in the UK over recent years, as the unpredictable weather has made grass shortages a reality and has given producers the impetus to investigate what other forage options are available.

It was with this in mind that a group of nine English grassland farmers, together with forage experts from EBLEX, DairyCo and British Seed Houses, set off from Stansted to visit the Poitou-Charentes region of France last week to explore the potential of lucerne, on a study tour organised by EBLEX and part-funded by the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE).

Lucerne, also known as alfalfa, is the most popular forage crop in the world and is grown on 30 million hectares of land from Siberia to South Africa, with 64% of total production taking place in North and South America. A legume which is known for its high yield, good nutritional value and drought-resistant properties, lucerne was grown in significant quantities in the UK until the middle of the 20th Century, but then went out of favour, primarily due to difficulties in establishing the crop in its first year and the advent of cheap nitrogen.

Across the Channel, where climatic conditions are arguably more suited to growing lucerne, it was a similar story. With lucerne production peaking in France between 1950 and 1970, it then fell away before enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. 300,000 hectares are now grown across France, compared with 20,000 hectares in the UK, although this figure is subject to debate. Most of the farmers on the study tour were already growing lucerne and were keen to get tips on how to improve the performance of the crop on their farm.

Arriving at the tiny airport in Poitiers on a flight full of holidaymakers, the group were met by representatives of Jouffray-Drillaud seed houses, who had organised visits to a number of farms around Poitou-Charentes, which is one of the biggest lucerne-producing regions of France.

The French farms, which mainly reared either dairy cattle or dairy goats, as well as producing fields of waving sunflowers and towering maize, seemed a world away from the predominantly grassland farms run by those on the study tour. However, farming is an international language, and the English producers were able to quiz their French counterparts in detail about their production systems and particularly their use of lucerne, thanks to the admirable translation skills of Jérôme Vasseur, Jouffray-Drillaud’s export manager. 

After visiting five farms, as well as Jouffray-Drillaud’s own breeding facility, the group had taken copious notes and numerous photos, and had plenty of ideas of how they could improve their use of lucerne on their own farms.

From an EBLEX perspective, the next step is to communicate the technical messages learnt during the trip to a wider farming audience. Lucerne isn’t suitable for every farm, as it doesn’t grow well in wet soils, but EBLEX livestock scientist, Liz Genever, estimates that there is easily the potential to double or treble lucerne production in the UK. Hopefully by providing practical advice to farmers on how best to grow and utilise this crop, more will have the confidence to trial it on their farm.

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