Boosting diversity in the South Downs: A farmer Q+A

Annie Brown is a third-generation farmer on a family farm with just over 600 hectares in the South Downs National Park. She is part of a field lab investigating the use of two nitrogen-free soil treatments to see if they improve the productivity, diversity and drought resistance of grasslands in the South Downs. Her farm is a traditional mixed farm, roughly half arable and half pasture. And she has a rotation of wheat, barley, beans and oilseed rape and a herd of just over 100 suckler cows.

We caught up with her to find out more about this trial. 

Annie Brown

Can you explain the field lab in a nutshell?

A very large proportion of land in the South Downs is zero input grassland, and we are extensively managing that with cattle and sheep. This is currently our only management tool for grassland. So, this field lab is looking at improving the productivity of the sward in those grasslands by applying natural products that encourages the fixing of nitrogen in those species. If we can boost those nitrogen fixing species like the clovers and the vetches, we can increase the nutritional value of the sward. This will increase the productivity of our grazing livestock which should increase our livestock gross margins, and therefore our overall farm business performance.

But we also have the potential to increase the diversity of the sward. And beyond that, there is a suggestion that a sward with more nitrogen fixing plants increases drought resistance. We all experience dry summers on the South Downs and the land really dries up, so if there is the potential to have grass that holds onto that moisture for longer that is of real importance within the context of increasingly dry summers and climate change.

What’s the history of the grasslands on your farm?

My father was an intensive arable farmer at a time of government intervention on the price of grain. So he’d plough up whatever land he could for cereals, and that was the story for a lot of farms. When one of the first government environmental scheme was launched, my father bought into the arable reversion scheme, planting all of his land on the hill to grass. This land remained as permanent pasture until he passed away nearly 20 years later

We then began looking at grassland. Most of it wasn’t productive for animals, and so wasn’t delivering productivity for the business, but also wasn’t delivering the diversity of sward that had been anticipated by the government. The expression ‘green concrete’ was coined – the Downs was full of green concrete.

How did the group come to this idea?

I am the lead farmer for our local Eastern South Downs Cluster. This is a group of farmers who are coming together to look to deliver environmental benefits on a landscape scale. Each farm is different, but we have a number of common interests, and through the platform of the group we are beginning to open up opportunities to engage with scientists, academics and advisers.
I knew there was a lot of interest and research currently underway on the arable side, but I didn’t see a lot going on for grassland. So I began to see grassland as an underutilised resource, and knew that we must be able to manage it in a smarter way. The seeds of the idea for this field trial was sown in a chance conversation on a trailer at an AHDB Monitor Farm event! So we started working with Natural England and the Royal Horticultural Society to see if there are other practices that could be tried.

Can you explain the methodology?

A site was chosen that is typical of the extensive permanent pasture that we have on our farm, and also logistically relatively easy to access. We have fenced off roughly one tenth of a hectare, so a small area of land in the context of our whole farm. We have the two treatments - BCP, which is a by product of the biodiesel industry, and then molasses. We will apply these two treatments at two concentrations each, plus a control. So five treatments allocated randomly over 20 plots, four plots of each.

The application of the treatment might be quite crude – something as simple as a watering can. I’ve never been involved in something like this, and the translation of this into something commercial is a bigger question. We’d need to work out how you would you spread this material efficiently for example.

What results are you hoping for?

Any increase in diversity of the sward would be a good result. I say that because I believe that if we can build up the diversity of the sward over the seasons, then there is potential to really improve our grazing capacity. My understanding is that the treatment creates the ideal conditions for those nitrogen fixing plants to thrive, and they support the microbes that turn the nitrogen from the air into a natural fertiliser. The opportunity for us to fix more nitrogen, and boost our carbon budget on the farm is a real added benefit for the environment, and a delivery of ‘public good’.

Why is farmer-led research important to you?

If any technique or management practices are going to be adopted on the ground, there needs to be some practical understanding of what is involved in managing the land to begin with. I think we can all think of examples of research that has happened, where the researchers haven’t fully understood the practicalities of farming.

It’s quite difficult to bring farmers to the table and tell them they could do things differently, so if we can bring a few nuggets of technology or different ways of doing things and showcase them, that will help bring about positive change. And when farmers come together in a process like this one of the biggest things they gain from is just being able to talk to each other.
I’m extremely lucky to have a dedicated farm manager and team who keep their eye on the ball of the day to day running of our farm, and this gives me the opportunity to look beyond the farm gate and think outside the box. So, if I can share some of what we’ve learned in this research with other farmers that will be a success.

Contact us get involved

To keep informed of how this field lab and others are progressing sign up and become a member of the Innovative Farmers’ network. Got your own idea for a field lab? Submit it here and we'll pin it on our online pinboard

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