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Low-input animal production based on forage legumes for silage

Contract nr: FAIR-CT96-1832
Project nr: 1832
Project type: SC
Starting date: 01/02/1997
Duration: 50 months
Total cost: 1,680,000 EUR
EC Contribution: 1,264,000 EUR
Scientific Officer: Michel VAN DEN BOSSCHE
Research topic: Agriculture-environment interactions
Acronym: LEGSIL

Although less intensive production in Northern EU countries based on the use of forage legumes for silage have potentially low inputs of fertilisers and concentrate feeds, they have had little impact to the present because of poor productivity and persistence of the varieties and species available, the lack of integrated studies on legume production and utilisation and the ready availability of cheap nitrogenous fertilisers.

The objective of the project is to provide the technical basis for economically efficient but less intensive animal production for northern EU countries based on the use of forage legumes for silage.

This project investigates the use in northern EU countries of novel plant materials within the genera Galega, Lotus, Medicago and Trifolium, which are very promising for overcoming the disadvantages of existing materials.
In addition to contributing information in relation to less intensive animal production systems, the use of forage legumes has the potential to better protect the environment through reduction in nitrogen losses.

Furthermore, legumes are the cornerstone of efficient organic farming systems. The project involves integrated investigations in four countries and addresses the following Tasks:
1. To obtain information on productivity and nutritive quality of a range of forage legumes, both grown conventionally and in organic systems.
2. To ascertain losses of nitrate through leaching from growing a range of forage legumes.
3. To establish reliable techniques for the successful preservation of forage legumes through ensiling.
4. To ascertain animal responses and N balances with contrasting legume silages in relation to grass silage, particularly for milk production.
5. To assess the economic and environmental impact of using forage legumes for animal production in northern Europe.

Overall, the project will establish the contribution that forage legumes, specifically and generally, can make to economically and environmentally sustainable animal production in the northern EU.
One of the main outputs from the project will be a Technical Report, targeted to extension workers and consultants, outlining major project conclusions and providing advice on land use and animal production based on forage legumes for silage.

Current situation/results:
A database of previous research on the productivity of forage legumes has been prepared and a paper summarising this information submitted for publication. This highlighted the paucity of information, particularly for lotus and galega. The project will make a major contribution in providing consistent information from an experiment at 12 sites through the study area. The treatments include 'standard' and locally adapted varieties of white clover, red clover, lucerne, lotus and galega, grown alone and in mixture with grass for assessment of yield and quality.
In the first year yields for the best legume treatments were generally higher than those for grass receiving 200kgN/ha. Although on some sites lucerne was the most productive legume, red clover was well adapted across the study area. These data will be used to validate a mechanistic model of the growth of the different species based on physiological information and reaction to climatic factors.
This experiment provides the basis for assessing impacts on nitrate leaching, which has been found to be higher for the pure legumes than for legume-grass mixtures and generally higher than for grass receiving 200kgN/ha. Concentrations of nitrate have, however, been lower than the EU limit for drinking water.
Successful techniques for ensiling forage legumes have been developed. All of the legumes have low contents of water soluble carbohydrates and high buffering capacity, giving a high risk of poor preservation, unless the crops are wilted to c. 40% dry matter or to a somewhat lower dry matter and ensiled with use of a chemical or biological additive. All legume silages have been stable in aerobic conditions after silo opening.
Silages are being used in feeding experiments with sheep and dairy cows. Results from the first experiments have confirmed that voluntary intake is higher with legumes than with grass. In the experiments with sheep, lotus silages have given particularly high intakes. The cow experiments have used white clover, red clover, lucerne and galega. Particularly high levels of performance have been found with white clover silage, associated with high intake and high digestibility. A wide range of assessments of the composition of the silages and of their degradation in vitro are being made to explain the variation in animal response.
Results from the project are providing a key input to assessments of the economic and environmental impact of using forage legumes in animal production systems in northern Europe. A simple assessment of costs of inputs and returns from animal products in the project experiments is being made. The major effort, however, is in the construction of models of forage production and dairy cow feeding which will enable calculation of the impact throughout the study area of the partial substitution of grass by forage legumes and the sensitivity of the results to changing economic factors.
In addition to publications in scientific journals and meetings, a Technical Report will be targeted to extension workers and consultants. An application has been made to EU under Accompanying Measures for further actions to facilitate dissemination of the project results.
A description of the project has been published in Grassland Science in Europe Vol. 3, pp. 285-288 and three papers on forage production, ensiling and dairy cow feeding will be presented at the European Grassland Federation Meeting in Denmark in May 2000.

Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research
North Wyke
UK-EX20 2SB Okehampton
Tel: +44 1837 88 35 50
Fax: +44 1837 82 998


  • Joerg GREEF
    Federal Agricultural Research Centre
    Bundesallee 50
    D-38116 Braunschweig
    Tel: +49 531 59 63 78
    Fax: +49 531 59 63 20

    Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
    Kungsaengen Research Centre
    S-753 23 Uppsala
    Tel: +46 18 67 16 45
    Fax: +46 18 67 29 46

  • Liisa Syrjala-Qvist
    University of Helsinki
    Department of Animal Science
    P.O. Box 28
    FIN-00014 Helsinki
    Tel: +358 9 191 585 60
    Fax: +358 9 191 583 79


  • Christopher DOYLE
    Scottish Agricultural College
    UK-KA6 5HW Ayr
    Tel: +44 1292 52 50 53
    Fax: +44 1292 52 50 52

    Valio Ltd.
    P.O. Box 390
    FIN-00101 Helsinki
    Tel: +358 9 103 811 21
    Fax: +358 9 103 813 219
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