Grass/herbal leys farm network. Phase 1 – network establishment and expansion

Project Number:              91110083 (61110083)

Lead Contractor:             RSK ADAS Ltd

Start and end dates:      15 November 2017 – 15 May 2018

 

The Problem:

Integration of grass/herbal leys and livestock into arable rotations has the potential to provide benefits to both arable and livestock farming systems.

Continuous arable cropping with annual soil cultivations and little or no inputs of organic materials have led to reductions in soil organic matter content. Soil organic matter levels are closely linked to soil properties that are important in the maintenance of soil quality and fertility which are key for the long-term sustainability of crop production.

Temporary grass/herbal leys have the potential to enhance soil organic matter levels, leading to increased moisture retention, better nutrient turnover and reduced risk of soil erosion. Furthermore, the introduction of a ley into an arable rotation provides the opportunity for the cultural control of black-grass by allowing a decline in the weed seedbank and a reduction in the resistance pressure to current herbicides.

The aim of this project is to establish a network of farmers, researchers and industry organisations to further investigate the long term benefits of grass/herbal leys in a rotation.

 

Aims and Objectives:

The aim of this project is to establish a network consisting of farmers, researchers and industry organisations to investigate the long term rotational benefits of grass/herbal leys.

Specific objectives are:

  1. Establish a grass/herbal leys network of farmers, researchers and partner organisations.
  2. Host an initial partnership workshop to introduce the network.

Produce a strategy for network development (phase 2)

 

Approach:

A grass/herbal leys network of farmers, researchers and partner organisations will be established to facilitate quantification of the long-term (i.e. 5-10+ years) impacts of leys in rotation. Specifically the network will aim to:

  1. Quantify changes in soil organic matter and soil health from introducing temporary grass/herbal leys across a range of soil types and rainfall areas.
  2. Quantify changes to soil organic matter and soil health following destruction of the temporary grass/herbal ley and return to arable production.
  3. Investigate the effectiveness of grass/herbal leys in controlling blackgrass in ‘problem’ fields.

Information will be collected from farmers on cropping plans and grass management, which will be used to identify and access suitable sites for future measurements. The farm network will also be asked to identify and prioritise other areas for research. Data on soil quality and blackgrass control benefits of grass/herbal leys could be used in combination with other farm data to provide a cost benefit analysis for integrating grass/herbal leys into a arable rotation. The network would also provide a platform to facilitate farmer led split field comparisons (i.e. comparing different grass mixes or length of leys).

Network establishment

This project is for an initial six month period (‘phase one’) to formally establish and expand the network.  formally establish and expand the network. Activities within phase one will include:

  1. One page summary document outlining aims and vision of the farm network and inviting interested parties to join.
  2. All project partners have agreed to promote the network via their own contacts. The combination of project partners including membership organisations (i.e BGS and PFLA), seed houses (Germinal, Field Options and Cotswold seeds), research organisations (ADAS, Bangor University and ORC) and AHDB will ensure widespread promotion of the network.
  3. Project partnership workshop style meeting (mid-April 2018) to include:
    • Farmers: current & planned use of grass/herbal leys, management of leys, soil type and farm location, any other farm specific issues, i.e. blackgrass, soil erosion etc. Willingness to participate in measurements and host split field comparisons.
    • Industry and research partner organisations: existing research projects/measurements. Willingness to participate and options for providing in-kind support.
    • Focus groups to identify and prioritise knowledge gaps and collate feedback on how farmers/partners want to receive information from the network.
    • Scientific session looking at rotational benefits of grass/herbal leys, what we know now of the value of leys in improving soil quality, using leys to manage weeds in arable rotations and practical issues of managing leys within the rotation.
    • Introduction to the network and it’s long term aim and vision
    • Network engagement, to collect information from farmers and partner organisations to facilitate future development of the network:
  4. Farm network database including details of farmers using grass/herbal leys and willing to participate in measurements (with farm details and cropping plans), other interested farmers (either not using leys or not wishing to participate in measurements) and partner organisations.
  5. A project partnership meeting report summarising outputs from the focus groups.
  6. An end of project future strategy meeting with AHDB to identify methodology to address knowledge gaps, timescale to deliver, appropriate funding sources/partnerships and actions to progress. Summary future strategy report.

 

Results:

An end of phase 1 a future strategy meeting with AHDB and Defra was held on 22nd June. The aim of the meeting was to identify methodology to address knowledge gaps, timescale to deliver, appropriate funding sources/partnerships and actions to progress.

At the meeting ADAS presented:

  • Summary of online survey responses.
  • Feedback from the network meeting.
  • Other relevant research projects.
  • Possible future research projects including:

i. Impacts of temporary leys on soil quality

  • Establish a framework and infrastructure for monitoring practice and soil testing on farms (aim to facilitate the collection of data from existing and new projects into a single database).
  • Quantify the impact of temporary leys on soil organic matter/soil quality (working with farmers in the network; assessments pre and post leys)

ii. Impacts of ley destruction methods

  • Comparison of plough, minimum tillage and no tillage methods of establishing the following arable crop on soil quality.
  • Potential to use a split field or tramline approach and assessing yields of the following combinable arable crop using yield maps.
  • This work could link the current AHDB Soil biology and health partnership.

iii. Sward management (herbal leys), focus on:

  • Sward management for maintaining and maximising benefits of multi-species leys.
  • Cutting/grazing management to preserve sown species.
  • Animal breeds best suited to different types of ley.
  • Forage quality.
  • Economics.

iv. Effectiveness of leys in controlling black-grass:

  • Quantify the reduction in black-grass.
  • Impact of length of ley.
  • Impact of ley destruction method.
  • Sampling pre & post leys in ‘problem’ black-grass fields.