Mendip Hills manager Simon Lee, Andrew Johnston from Luisetti Seeds and owner David Black have created forage hubs in their hill country.

Chicory lifting hill country productivity

Grazing is about more than grass these days, as new forage crops are introduced. Sandra Taylor reports on the results for one North Canterbury farm.

A decision to use areas of cultivable hill country to grow specialised forages is having a profound effect on Mendip Hill’s farm business.

By growing areas of chicory and clover and lucerne through their hill country, the management team have been able to lift both weaning weights and percentage of lambs finished at weaning, free up areas for other stock classes and grow their ewe lambs out to mating weights.

This year 2600 hoggets went to the Southdown ram. This represents a big shift as it is the first time all the hoggets have been put to the ram – in previous years only a proportion were mated.

Simon Lee, who manages the 6100-hectare, 34,000 stock unit North Canterbury farm for the Christchurch-based Black family, says after successfully growing specialist forage crops on their flats, they turned their attention to their hill country, identifying areas of deep, loamy fertile soils that could be used to create forage hubs.

Drawing on the knowledge of their hill country forage specialist Andrew Johnston from Luisetti Seeds and owner David Black, they chose to grow chicory on some of these hill country areas, having successfully grown the herb under irrigation on Mendip Hill’s finishing farm near Cheviot.

Andrew says chicory has an metabolisable energy (ME) equal to lucerne, is highly digestible, and has a long tap root which can access soil moisture at depth and draw trace elements such as copper from within the soil profile and makes them available to livestock.

They just stack the weight on and they are growing at 280-300 grams/day easily, compared to the lambs on grass which are gaining 170-190g/day.

This feature, along with the plants’ condensed tannins – which are known to help control internal parasites – means the crop has significant animal health benefits which Simon has noted in reduced animal health treatments in stock grazing the crop.

Simon says the lambs do extremely well on the hill country chicory.

“They just stack the weight on and they are growing at 280-300 grams/day easily, compared to the lambs on grass which are gaining 170-190g/day.

“I’m pretty sold on it, it’s not a big cost and we can target-feed young animals on it.

“It’s about seeing the bigger picture and the many benefits it generates.”

A 68ha block sown in Chicory last year had been in pasture for 10 years. It was put through two kale crops before the ground was top-worked and the area direct-drilled last November with 7kg/ha Charger chicory, 5kg/ha of Rustler red clover and 3kg/ha of Kakariki white clover.

Seed costs were $256/ha plus GST. The block was sprayed with Preside herbicide at 65g/ha plus Uptake oil at 1 litre/ha to control fathen at establishment. Product cost $33.80 and the cost of aerial application was $45/ha.

Andrew says the chemical would only be applied if weeds were impacting negatively on crop establishment.

“Chicory is not affected by any insect pests such as aphids and diamond-backed moths and there are no animal health issues associated with it.

“It’s pretty much bullet-proof.”

After sowing, the weather was extremely hot and dry, but the seeds did strike in three waves and Simon was able to get the first grazing off the block in January with six subsequent grazings through autumn by lambs and cattle.

“We had the finishing steers on it and had no bloat issues.”

Because of its palatability, stock graze chicory very evenly and there are no dead-matter or quality issues, which means there is no need to break-feed it.

It was given a final hard grazing in early June and will be left over winter. In early spring it will be used for in-lamb hoggets before being shut-up and used for ewes and lambs in late spring.

Simon says they can comfortably budget on growing eight tonnes drymatter (DM)/ha/year from their hill country chicory crops and can graze it earlier than traditional summer crops such as rape. They have also found it will last longer into autumn.

Andrew says while the Charger chicory won’t bolt – unlike older varieties – it still needs to be grazed aggressively in spring, which is exactly when Simon wants feed to meet increased demand from lactating ewes and growing lambs.

Simon says they can expect to get at least two years out of their chicory stands and will then stitch in either cocksfoot or a short-term ryegrass to extend the life of the pasture to between five and 10 years, depending on the rotation.

“I do really like the mix, it has its place if you select the right paddocks and know what you will be using it for.”

The wider business

Mendip Hills has 2400ha of cultivatable land so lucerne, clovers, chicory, cocksfoot and other specialist forages are playing an increasingly important part of the business.

The farm runs 12,000 Romney cross ewes in five mobs; replacements are bred from the best of the four-tooth and two-tooth ewes, the balance split into three lines and put to a terminal sire.

Kale has been used as a mating feed to drive conception rates (lifting the scanning in the two-tooths from 162% to 182%) but this did increase the number of triplets which can be a problem in bad weather.

Plentiful grass this year meant they were able to mate the ewes on pasture.

Last year the lambing percentage – ewes mated to lambs sold – was 142%.

At this percentage, Simon finds he can get one-third of the terminal sire lambs sold prime at weaning. All lambs (except replacements) are gone by early January to the finishing farm.

Simon says they do need to invest in forages and fertiliser to be able to drive stock performance, but fertiliser has always been a high priority on Mendip Hills, costing $12/su annually.

Olsen.P levels vary across the farm, from 2 in some areas and up to 22 in others so production does fall away when they back-off on fertiliser.

Nitrogen is applied strategically to help build pasture covers in early spring, but Simon says it is a tool, not a get-out-of-jail card.

Simon used nitrogen at 60kg/ha during the drought and it proved to be a valuable tool in lifting pasture covers.

Subterranean clovers are included in all the permanent pasture mixes and they are increasingly using new varieties of cocksfoot (Savvy and Safin) as a pasture plant as it tolerates the heat and dry more than ryegrass.

Chicory’s attributes

  • High digestibility
  • High liveweight gain because of high ME (12 MJ ME/kg DM)
  • Rapid growth from October through until April
  • Tolerant of varying soil conditions
  • Very few pests and diseases
  • Contains high concentrations of minerals
  • Reliable summer growth, because of a deep tap root system