How to sow lucerne like a pro

Date posted: 24 March 2016

A big part of our City Crop program is showcasing and celebrating farmers who have whole farms (not just city plots like ours) filled with lucerne.

For the City Crop, sowing a plot of Lucerne was simple. We were fortunate to utilise the services of the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) who brought in plot seeders (machinery that helps plant seeds).

But for commercial farmers, Mike and Tania Vandenbrink - who run a diary business at Meningie, South Australia (near The Coorong) farming is on a whole other level – big paddocks, big machinery and big cows to feed. Finding the quickest and most cost-effective ways to do this and milk their 400 cows is a must.

The Vandenbrinks run a best practice, high-end dairy that supplies milk to Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory. Here their milk is mainly used to make bulk dairy products to be exported overseas.

To make sure their cows don’t go hungry, the Vandenbrinks established a rotational grazing system (moving cows between different areas on the farm to make sure they have enough food and the plants aren't too damaged) on their 1,500 hectare property, which includes paddocks of our favourite nutritious legume crop - lucerne.

Each year the Vandenbrinks plant lucerne seed in June, using a Morris disc seeder pulled behind their tractor.

What's a disc seeder, you ask? Disc seeders work by cutting a long and narrow trench (called a furrow) in the soil using a sharp, metal disc. A series of tubes then "shoot" a seed into the furrow, at a depth of around three centimetres. Another piece of the machiner then covers the seed with soil.

Disc seeders are used by many farmers because they're designed to minimise soil disturbance and therefore soil erosion/damage. They also allow farmers to sow the seed in between last year’s crop stubble (the cut stalks of plants left sticking out of the ground after harvesting).

This seeding technique - known as zero-till – not only reduces soil erosion but also helps to maximise water conservation, so there's more moisture for the young seedling to access when conditions are dry.

Once the lucerne is planted, it will take just over a week to germinate (sprout), depending on soil moisture levels. The new plants thrive in spring and summer, and once they reach about one metre in height and have about 10% of the plants flowering, they provide high-quality feed for the cows.

Some farmers wait a year for the crop to establish before they let the cows loose to eat it, but the Vandenbrinks may put some young cows on the new lucerne paddocks just after Christmas. Then, in the spring of the following year, the paddocks will be cut for silage (stored in a silo - a tall farming tower) and hay, also known as fodder, for the cows to eat.

Since lucerne is a legume, it is high in protein – an essential element for the cows to produce high-quality milk!

Lucerne is a perennial pasture, meaning it can last for a long time despite being grazed by cows and cut for fodder. Depending on the variety, some lucerne stands can last up to 20 years!