Where do herbal leys sit in a modern dairy system?

Monday, 24 July 2023

Last week, AHDB’s senior knowledge exchange manager for dairy, Stephen West, spoke to Peak District farmer Robert Thornhill and Catchment Sensitive Farming’s Ben Rodgers about the challenges and benefits of growing herbal leys.

There are some clear incentives for implementing herbal leys in England in the way of payments through the new Sustainable Farming Incentive guidance, but to the rest of Great Britain, there are benefits to the environment and business-like reduced inputs, drought tolerance and improved soil structure and health.

However, the challenges lay around establishing the leys, weed control, and the new trend of cold springs, which causes slow establishment of clover in the early season.

Steve sets out to better understand where herbal leys and multispecies sit in a modern dairy system, looking at some of the associated benefits and challenges of incorporating herbal leys into the rotation – even at 1,000 feet above sea level.

First up, Steve speaks to Ben Rodgers from Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF), who are running a trial in the Peak District looking at utilising herbal leys to offset inputs on a variety of farms.

For Ben, incorporating herbal leys and legume swards is a win-win for ticking the productive farming and environmental boxes. CSF now work with a group of farmers in the area to see how they can fit within their farming systems.

Ben speaks about the number of options farmers have to fund herbal leys, highlighting how the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme offers a £382/ha option when linked to arable or temporary grassland. Another route is through the Sustainable Farming Incentive (CFI), which matches the same rate and is eligible for improved permanent grassland. There are also other private-sector funding options, such as water companies.

What are some of the benefits of establishing herbal leys in the rotation?

In addition to the environmental benefits, Ben highlights the benefits to pollinators and the benefits of biodiversity above and below ground, their role in reducing inputs and how incorporating deep rooting species has a role in drought resilience and improving soil structure and, in turn, better infiltration rates and moisture retention.

How did the White Peak trial come about?

CSF wanted to determine what could be done to engage with the farmers on more productive lands in the area. There are some water challenges, and this was a way for them to connect and protect some key sites. Herbal leys seemed like an obvious fit but had little uptake in the area.

Collaborating with the local national park authority, they were able to finance a series of herbal ley trials on farm. This allowed farmers to get familiar with them and get a better understanding of the challenges and benefits associated with them. Since then, they have expanded the trial across other farms and gained funding from water companies. The trial facilitated more peer-to-peer learning and brought about even more benefits.

As part of the trial, the farms tested forage quality by means of wet chemistry analysis, as NIR analysis - which is normally carried out on ryegrass samples - was not dependable for herbal leys. Overall, the results were positive, ME (Metabolizable Energy) was comparable to the ryegrass, and CP (Crude Protein) % was a little higher – particularly later in the season. The minerals were also higher, which supports the theory that these deeper-rooted systems are capable of mining minerals from the soil profile.

At the start of the trial, the farmers planted a small area, between 4 and 5 acres. All were encouraged enough by the results to expand the area. Ben’s final bit of advice to farmers is to have a go and get a feel for it!

Steve then spoke to Robert Thornhill, a dairy farmer on a pasture-based system with 280 crossbred, spring-calving cows. Robert has been growing herbal leys for 10 or 11 years now after trying to find alternatives to nitrogen fuelled ryegrass systems. His interest lies in finding sustainable forages and grazing techniques, which was the focus of his Nuffield Farming Fellowship in 2013. For him, pasture diversity made so much sense. The different root types, and depths, also provided a diverse mineral profile in the swards.

A dairy farmer's perspective

Robert is one of the farmers involved in the White Peak trial. He speaks about trying to find out if there could be an overlap between commercial production and the environment. He tells Steve, “When looking at sustainability – the first line is financial – as this reflects viability. Without that, we cannot continue to do what we do or look after the land.” In this trial, he is looking at whether he can provide for the environment by using different flowering species and still maintain production.

Robert feels herbal leys have a place in his rotation because it ticks the ecology box and improves soil health and structure. He says, “The theory makes sense, but that doesn’t pay bills”, so he needs to make sure he gets sufficient production of dry matter off these paddocks with reduced inputs.

Listen to the podcast to learn more about Robert’s trials, his tips on establishment, management techniques, advice around weed management and how he allocates pasture.

Find out more about Forage For Knowledge