Crop trials to diversify winter fodder for cattle and wildlife

Livestock farmers are leading new research into diverse winter grazing crops to cut feed and input costs while boosting soil health and biodiversity in a new Innovative Farmers field lab.

Aim of the research is to reduce soil erosion and create habitat

The farmers will compare their usual winter forage of a single species brassica mono-culture with a diverse, 16 species fodder crop mix - including clovers, hairy vetch, ryegrass, spring oats, kale and linseed.

Their aim is to reduce soil erosion and create habitats for nature during winter grazing, while also providing a nutritional crop that maintains animal health and performance.  

Triallist George Greed farms a 230Ha organic farm in Devon with 280 cows on mix of aluvial soil with some deep loamy areas. He said: “I passionately believe I have a responsibility, as a farmer and custodian of this land, to do what I can to support biodiversity. From providing shelter and food for wildlife and pollen for bees to providing a more diverse source of winter bird food, I am interested to find out what benefits diverse fodder can provide."

winter fodder

Potential for cattle welfare and biodiversity

Many beef farmers plant a single brassica forage crop, such as kale or fodder beet, for their cattle to graze over the winter to reduce feed costs and the indoor time for the herd.

Inspired by success of the practice in New Zealand, this field lab will test whether the higher biomass of a diverse crop can boost farm resilience by protecting the soil structure. It is hoped benefits will include reduced erosion and run off, and higher worm counts, infiltration rates, and water holding capacity.

Wide-reaching benefits for farmers

The field lab’s findings could be particularly significant as the government moves to its new farm payment system, as keeping soils covered over winter is set to be rewarded in the new Sustainable Farming Incentives (SFIs).

Not one-size-fits-all – getting the right crop mix is key

Sarah Whaley, from Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) Southwest, who are a research partner on the trial, said: “Plants work better in a community, and diversity supports the beneficial symbiotic relationships both above and below ground. While conventional farming practices have relied on mono-cropping as a rule, there is much research around improved responses in soil health, animal performance and wider environmental benefits from bringing in diversity. Whilst winter brassicas are valuable to farmers, this field lab aims to investigate if there is an alternative way that offers a multitude of benefits over forage value alone.”

She added that getting the mix of crop right is key and it won’t be a “one-size-fits-all solution” as the successes will need to be weighed against soil types and different climates.”

winter fodder - species

Balancing a productive farm with a healthy environment

The trial, involving two conventional and two organic farms, will monitor and measure the diverse crops potential to:

  • maintain animal health, welfare and performance
  • extend winter grazing and produce a ‘second bite’ of grazing in early spring, depending on regrowth
  • improve soil quality for the following cropping season
  • boost biodiversity by creating a habitat for multiple species like pollinators and invertebrates, including insects and seed that are a food source for bats and birds
  • reduce soil erosion, compaction and run-off of sediment and nutrients into waterways
  • decrease pest and disease pressure requiring fewer inputs
  • reduce indoor housed winter feed, incurred costs, and use of fossil fuels.

Looking forward to learnings about soil and livestock health

Another of the participants is Chris Berry, who farms close to Exeter. He farms a 180Ha conventional farm with sandy loam, free draining soil. The farm supports 900 breeding ewes and ewe lambs alongside a 65 head suckler beef enterprise.

He said: “There is quite a bit of unknown within this trial, but I think we all agree there is massive potential. As a curious farmer who out-winters most of our livestock, I am always looking to improve or seek out better alternatives to achieve the best all round sustainable outcome for the soil and livestock health."

10 years of Innovative Farmers, putting farmers in the driving seat of on-farm research

With the network in its 10th year, the triallists will join the 12,000 UK farmers that >Innovative Farmers has connected with since 2012, spanning across more than 120 field labs that have placed farmers in the driving seat of agricultural research.

Rebecca Swinn, Innovative Farmers manager said: “We are excited to see this trial launch as, if proven successful, diverse fodder crops could have a significant impact on farm resilience and environmental impacts across the UK. Success could help farmers increase biodiversity, capture carbon, and protect their most valuable resource - soil. Field labs mean that the results can be put directly to use so practices can change in real time. Giving farmers the confidence to test these ideas is what Innovative Farmers is all about.”

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