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Northern farmers trial nature-friendly grass species to save costs and boost resilience

Northern farmers trial nature-friendly grass species to save costs and boost resilience

03 October 2023 Diverse and resilient pastures

Northern farmers are running new trials on an underutilised type of grass that could improve resilience and save costs while capturing more carbon and making grasslands more nature-friendly.

In a new field lab with farmer-led research network Innovative Farmers, 10 farmers are testing the potential of cocksfoot – a grass species thought to last longer and be higher yielding, more resilient, and better for the environment than traditional grazing swards such as ryegrass. Cocksfoot is hoped to have financial benefits as it rarely if ever requires re-seeding unlike many of the leys the participating farmers are currently using that need sowing every four to five years. It also grows early in the season, giving farmers the potential to increase yields.

It is hoped that the plant could provide a longer-lasting option for northern farmers which would save money while also building soil fertility, improving water infiltration, and capturing carbon with its deeper and more complex root systems.

Untapped potential

Despite the potential benefits, cocksfoot appears confined to a small niche of farmers. It is not widely available in commercial grass mixes, something the research is trying to understand more.

The trials are taking place on seven farms within the North York Moors National Park and three in the Howardian Hills Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), all of which stand to benefit from the crop’s untapped potential to encourage biodiversity.

Participating farmer and project manager Fraser Hugill said: “The farmers we are working with have curious minds and several independent grassland experts have mentioned the value of cocksfoot as part of the Local Ryevitalise Project. This got us thinking – why are we not seeing it in commercial grass leys we’re all using?

“In addition to the commercial and environmental benefits, we’re getting more resilience in our grasslands by using cocksfoot in the mix – that’s really exciting and means we can potentially scale up after the trial.

“The field lab is farmer-led, addressing a question we identified and focussed on delivering action on the ground at a practical field scale. This also gives us a chance to share experiences as a community and an opportunity to work with the University of Leeds, who are providing practical advice and support to ensure our findings are tangible and robust. This is all a big help in developing farming systems that work more effectively.”

Working with scientists from the University of Leeds and independent grassland expert Jonathan Holmes, the team of 10 farmers aim to determine the ideal percentage of cocksfoot to add to their ley mixes and to understand its longevity, capacity for carbon capture in soils, and the commercial potential of re-seeding less frequently.

The farms will assess how forage quality, water infiltration, soil health and water quality are affected, and will consider how well cocksfoot leys fit into the cutting and grazing platform.

The cocksfoot component has been adjusted for the individual circumstances on each farm and will be compared with a control field of business-as-usual – typically a ryegrass clover ley. The farming systems include dairy cows, beef and sheep, farmed over various altitudes and soil types.

Early insights: diverse benefits in challenging conditions

Triallist Philip Snowdon runs High Baxtons farm with his father, a 400-acre mixed farm running 300 breeding ewes and 30 suckler cows. 

He said: “We’ve traditionally used ryegrass but it’s not well suited for a farm on higher ground, it typically gets worn out after a few years.

“We have tried some grass mixes with cocksfoot before and over the last two years, when we've had some challenging dry conditions, cocksfoot is about the only thing that's still green and growing. 

“This has huge potential for our kind of farm as it could extend the grazing window, increasing farm productivity. 

“Cocksfoot has the potential to open up soil structure with its deeper roots, potentially needing less fertiliser. We’re also very interested to monitor how carbon capture is affected by cocksfoot’s deeper roots. 

“We’ve seen some encouraging results already and we’re excited to explore this further within the trial.” 

Innovative Farmers manager Rebecca Swinn said: “This sort of field lab shows precisely why farmer-led research is necessary. 

“Sometimes practices with beneficial outcomes don’t reach farmers as the market doesn’t find it profitable. This group is questioning the dominance of fertiliser-hungry ryegrass versus a lower-cost, deeper rooting option. We are excited to discover the results.” 

To find out more and to get involved, visit the field lab portal on the Innovative Farmers website, where any farmer can join the network and find trial information and findings for free. 

The trial is supported with funding from the Oglesby Charitable Trust and Farming in Protected Landscapes (FiPL) via the North York Moors National Park and Howardian Hills AONB.


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