Researching herbal leys – A farmer Q&A

A group of conventional and organic dairy farmers have got together to research the best way of establishing and maintaining herbal leys. They are trying to find the right grazing approach to optimise the speed of regrowth and the longevity of species diversity of the leys. Innovative Farmers caught up with one of the conventional participants, Robert Thornhill, to ask him about his experience of the farmer led research.

Robert with the cows in the herbal leys      Robert with this cows on his mature mixed sward. 

How did you get the idea to test herbal leys on your farm?
Robert: It was my interest in biological farming techniques. I did a Nuffield Farming Scholarship in 2013 and did a lot of travelling around the world looking at alternative grazing techniques. And, more and more, I was exposed to the benefits (or seeming benefits) of diverse pastures, and I felt this was really something I wanted to have a go with, or at least experiment with back at home. And since then I’ve been playing around on a relatively small-scale, just to see what would happen. So that’s really where it all started.

What are the benefits to using herbal leys?
Robert: First and foremost I think it will help to reduce the reliance on artificial inputs. Of course, cost is imperative when running a business. But, for me the principles come first. The way I see it, it appears to be the right direction to be travelling. So, I want to see if I can make it work on my farm. For example, I seeded my first herbal leys at the end of 2013 before the field lab began, but after a while I got too big a reduction in species diversity. So I re-seeded it again about four years later. That piece of ground has had no artificial fertiliser on it since 2013 and it still produces very well. So that gives me confidence that it could reduce inputs.

Could you explain a bit about the context of your farm?
Robert: We’re a spring calving dairy farm using cross-bred cows. The farm is on fairly thin, silty, loamy soils over limestone bedrock, and most of it is in permanent pasture. From a visual aspect, we’re in the rolling hills of the Peak District National Park in the White Peak area. We’re on a rotational grazing system, grazing approximately every three weeks through the growing season with a network of tracks for the cattle to walk along.
We do use some fertiliser at frequent but very low rates. So, we use about 140kg of nitrogen per hectare over the whole season.

How much of your farm have you given over to the field lab?
Robert: I’ve got about 12-15 acres in at the moment. But we’re farming a total of just over 300 acres, so it’s a very small amount at this stage.

If things go well this year with the research would you look to expand next year?
Robert: Definitely – I’m certainly planning to put some more herbal leys in.

What have you learned from the research process?
Robert: There are a couple of down-sides with the leys I’ve planted so far. One is I’ve put them very close to the farm because I enjoy looking at them and keeping an eye on them, but then those fields don’t always get treated as normal, because when fields are close to the farm sometimes you use them for other purposes out of the rotation which makes for an unfair comparison. And then the other problem I had was when I did quite a large re-seed last spring it was such a dry season that establishment was a challenge. I used a standard Cotswold mix but none of the grass came up because it was just too dry. But we had a phenomenal germination of legumes and herbs. It was amazing. But there wasn’t the grass in there. And being close to the farmstead, and having a dry season and having to feed the cows on the yard, we tended to use them as paddocks which meant we didn’t really give them a fair comparison to the rest. Last year was a challenging year.

Did you find the herbal leys resistant to drought?
Robert: We do get very, very dry here. And chicory certainly does grow for a longer period – there’s no doubt about it. It was even growing slowly when everything else seemed to be not growing at all. So there was some attraction in that. And people I know that grow them in dry areas do so for that very reason. But when it gets really dry then we struggle to grow anything really because we have very free-draining and shallow soils.

Why do you think farmer-led research is important?
Robert: I think farmer led research is important because, if it’s done properly, it’s more relevant because it’s conducted on commercial farms in real-life situations. Also I think it’s more likely to be taken up by the general industry if they see it’s being done on commercial farms rather than somebody who doesn’t have the same pressures, for example in the research station.

Do you have any comment on the need for more farmer-led research in this country?
Robert: I think we could do with more because I think the UK has probably fallen behind in certain areas of research and a lot of it is commercially held. So we’ll always have a bias and many people feel quite rightly that this company is trying to sell something that supports that research. I think if we can get more farmer-led research that would be a good thing, but there has to be an incentive; not necessarily financial, but possibly in terms of support or getting the right farmer who’s interested in the right research.

Is it challenging doing farmer-led research? What are the challenges?
Robert: Yeah it is challenging. The challenges are, firstly understanding what you’re trying to achieve and the best and most consistent methods of doing it. But that’s quite easy to learn. The challenges are fitting it in and remembering to do it! So I have staff on my farm and while I was away on other business they grazed one of the fields with herbal leys and didn’t take any measurement samples beforehand. So we lost the data on that one. This challenge can be overcome but it is a challenge. When things get complicated which occasionally they do, it is just another complication and another thing to consider and have to fulfil.

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