Three couples farming in three different locations have come together under one Beef + Lamb New Zealand Innovation Farm project to increase the legume content of their hill country pastures. Sandra Taylor talked to them about their experiences and the lessons learnt.

G isborne-based Sandra and Rob Faulkner, Pete Swinburn and Suzanne Hoyt from Hawkes Bay and Wairarapa farmers Richard and Becks Tosswill are all trying to increase the clover content on their uncultivable hill country pastures, but each has a slightly different focus reflecting their different farming environments and management systems.


The Faulkners farm 600ha of flat to steep hill country near Gisborne. Their business includes sheep, beef, annual crops, citrus and forestry.

Their ewes are high performing, lambing 155-163% on their hill country and in 2018 earned $200/su.

On their annual clover-rich flat land pastures, the sheep are generating $6000/ha and Rob says if they didn’t have legumes in their finishing system, they wouldn’t be able to reach these financial targets.

Their challenge through the Innovation Farm programme was to make better use of legumes to lift production on their hill country and replicate what they are achieving on their easy country.

The key performance indicators of their programme are to lift the legume content of their hill country pasture from 5% of the drymatter grown to 30% through lactation. By doing this they are aiming to lift weaning weights from 28kg to 32kg and ewe weaning weights from 63kg to 67kg.

They also aim to lift ewe stocking rate on their hill country from 7/ha to 10/ha.

Rob and Sandra began their programme in December 2016 by spraying a hill country block with Roundup at a rate of five litres/ha. The block received a second spray in mid-March before Arrowleaf clover seed, at a rate of 12kg/ha, was flown on in early April 2017. The clover struck and established at 57 plants/m2. The clover was grazed in August and in September the block was locked up to allow the clover to seed, which it did producing 430kg/ha.

“It was pretty dramatic,” says Rob.

While very excited by the prospect of so much clover, Rob says the reality wasn’t so easy.

Trash from the long Arrowleaf stems proved to be problematic and harboured slugs which were a significant problem.

In January 2016, Sandra and Rob harvested a forestry block and in attempt to get production off the block while new


trees were being established, they chose to establish subterranean clover into the bare ground.

The area was sprayed in early March and the remnants of the harvest burnt in late March. In April seed, fertiliser and slugbait were flown on. While they had a good clover strike, weeds from a large seed bank in the ground have been a huge challenge. The area was grazed in August and shut up for seed in October. The block was sprayed with glyspohate in July 2017 to try and control weeds and ewes lambed on the clover in August. While the experiment worked to some extent, Rob says weeds were a big problem.


  • Planning, planning, planning
  • Need an excellent agronomist
  • Timing is essential- don’t establish the clover too early- wait for moisture in autumn.
  • Not all slug baits are created equal, don’t mix them with fertiliser at drilling
  • While Arrowleaf clover is very palatable, it is a more complicated system
  • Subterranean is probably a better long-term option.


The couple farm 646ha (622 effective) of hill country in the Wairarapa. Only 10% of their farm is cultivatable. The balance is genuine hill country with a winter-wet, summer dry climate.

The farm winters 2900 Texel-cross ewes (over the past five years the ewes have been weaning 148% with an average weaning weight of 30kg) and 100 Angus breeding cows and replacement heifers.

By increasing the legume content and therefore the ME, of their hill country pastures over that lactation period, they aim to lift their average weaning weight to 33kg and maximise the number of lambs they sell prime at weaning. They also aim to have heavier ewes at weaning, which sets them up for the following year’s reproductive cycle.

“If we have a good weaning then we are on the front foot going into any season.”

Richard says 30% of their country is north facing and favours subterranean (sub) clover production and it is this country that has been the focus of their Innovation Farm project.

“That country is key to the whole thing.”

Much of their country is erosion-prone and the Tosswills have planted a number of trees to help stabilise the soil, which is why they’re reluctant to use chemicals to build legume content in their pastures.

Pasture cages highlighted the potential of their sub clover as they showed just how much of this early season clover was already endemic in their hill country pastures. The challenge for the Tosswills was to utilise it better and augment the existing plant population.

For Richard, it has been a learning experience, as before embarking on the programme, he didn’t really understand the management of legumes in the sward, or anything about its reproductive cycle. Understanding and managing this cycle is critical to utilising this legume.

Despite their reluctance to use chemicals, in 2017 the couple used a herbicide to lightly desiccate the vegetation on one of their trial blocks to open the sward up before oversowing with five different clover mixes. These were 8kg/ha Balansa, 8kg/ha of red and white clover, 6kg/ha of Arrowleaf and 12kg/ha of sub clover.

While the Arrowleaf and Balansa produced a lot of drymatter in spring – 69kg DM/ha/day and 67kg DM/ha/day respectively between September and early November – Richard suspects they come with a lot more management challenges (such as dealing with trash) than the sub clover.

This trial showed that the spray treatment favoured clover production, but more importantly it highlighted the potential of growing clover without the use of chemicals; it all comes down to management.

For sub clover, this means grazing in autumn and shutting it up in late spring/early summer to allow seed-set.

The seed are encased in burrs grown on runners the sub plants put out in spring.

Richard admits that while he had seen these burrs in the past, he had thought they were thistle seed heads.

“I didn’t know any of this stuff.

“I came in quite naïve, but as a hill country farmer, it’s critical to know all of this.”

On another trial block, on which they were looking specifically at management, they oversowed a grazed treatment area with 20kg/ha of a clover mix containing 12kg/ha of sub clover and 4kg/ha each of red and white clover. The result of the combined oversowing and management treatment was a sward containing 72% clover – the ungrazed control contained 25% clover.

Richard says this highlighted the potential of using the correct management to increase the legume content of the pasture.

A critical part of this management is shutting areas off to allow the clover to set seed in late spring and early summer.

Rather than seeing this as lost production, Richard and Becks saw it as a way of shifting the feed supply into summer. This bank of feed was used for weaned ewe lambs.

In 2019, clover germination looked fantastic until Wairarapa experienced a very dry autumn and a lot of the seedlings were lost. However, the clover had, in the previous spring, set 100-300kg/ha of clover seed in the ground so Richard was confident there was plenty of seed in the bank for future germinations.

They also oversowed 10kg/ha of sub clover over one block in June. Richard admits this was extremely late to be sowing seed, but they needed to have the moisture in the ground before flying the seed on. Although it was colder than ideal, conditions were otherwise perfect.

As they enter the final year of the programme, Richard says they will continue to manage their pastures to maximise sub clover production and lift the quality in late winter and early spring.

Stock performance will be monitored over spring and they will use Farmax modelling and Farm IQ data to see how improved pasture quality impacts on the whole farm system.

They will also be looking at role micronutrients play in legume growth.


  • There is a large bank of sub clover seed in the ground and with the correct management it really begins to express itself.
  • It is possible to lift the clover content of the sward without using spray.
  • Small adjustments to management can increase productivity and profitability.
  • It is important to open up the sward before oversowing with clover seed. Richard and Becks use sheep to trample the seed into the ground.
  • Keep grass down to allow the clover to establish.
  • Slug bait is critical.


Based in the Hawke’s Bay, Pete farms 1480ha – 1270ha effective – in partnership with another family. Terrain is mixed, with 763ha being easy rolling country while 507ha, which is the focus of their Innovation Farm programme, is hill country. A further 120ha is in pine forest.

Frustrated by poor pre-weaning ewe and lamb growth rates, Pete wanted to use annual legumes to increase the quality of his hill country pastures. Measurements showed that clover only made up 1% of the sward.
He says pasture quality had always been a challenge and their hill country pastures were only growing 4.6t DM/ha/year and as they were only utilising 80% of this feed, which amounted to 3-3.5t DM/ha/year consumed.

Fertility is adequate with Olsen P levels of 18-20 and pH levels of 5.6-5.8.
As part of the Innovation Farm programme, Arrowleaf clover was oversown onto a trial block at a rate of 12kg/ha and grew 10.5t DM/ha from a strike of 130 plants/m2. While Pete admits he was initially thrilled with the results, the stalk left behind after seed-set – the crop dropped 1300kg of seed/ha – proved problematic.

Nothing will eat the stalk; it can’t be burnt and it harbours slugs.
In year two, the seed was sown later in autumn due to a lack of moisture in early autumn and the resulting crop was 8.3kg DM/ha.

Over 49 days in spring, this feed added 5kg to ewe bodyweight and drove pre-weaning lamb growth rates of 318gm/day.

In year three, the targeted area was oversown with 12kg/ha of plantain with the idea that the plantain would act as a cover crop while the seed bank of annual clover struck and became established.

Establishment was initially patchy with some weeds but the annual clover has come through and Pete says it is looking good for spring.
Herbage samples have a highlighted a molybdenum deficiency and trace elements will now be part of the ongoing clover trial.


  • Arrowleaf was very successful but slugs, trash and grass weeds need to be managed.
  • Have oversown sub clover onto a difficult face.
  • Looking at the role of micronutrients and using coated seed.