27 March 1998

HOW TO GET NEW LIFE IN AN OLD LEY

A low-cost method of rejuvenating grass leys is proving a

hit with dairy farmers in the west. Peter Hill reports

TICKLING seed into a tired pasture, rather than ploughing it up and starting again, is an attractive way of extending the productive life of a ley without a lot of expense. The difficulty comes in scratching the surface sufficiently to achieve decent germination without causing undue damage to the existing grass.

As a growing number of dairy farmers are finding, the tined weeder, used as an alternative to the traditional chain harrow, appears to get the balance about right. Add a seed box and you have a simple, low-cost method of introducing fresh grass into leys that are past their best.

"It has transformed our hill farm here in the Conwy Valley," claims John Braunton. "We are getting more grass for grazing and silage, and we have increased the stocking rate thanks to this technique."

Grass is the sole crop at Bodnant Ucka, Eglwysback, Colwyn Bay, where Mr Braunton milks 100 black-and-white cows with 90 followers. The upland terrain makes it all but impossible to grow maize or cereal crops, so the focus is firmly on making the most of the farms 73ha (180 acres) of grass.

"I used to be inclined to nurse old pastures along, but I could see improvements were needed because we were losing grazing capacity and silage production," he says. "The trouble is, the conventional plough and reseed approach is very costly; as my father used to question: Why plough 4in or 5in deep when the seed needs only a quarter inch of soil?"

Mr Braunton tried unsuccessfully to make his own scratch seeder, but then along came the Einboch tine weeder which seemed to fit the bill.

Tine weeders were originally developed for weed control in arable crops, either to replace herbicides where grown under an organic regime, or simply to cut down on weed control costs. The long flexible steel pigtail tines, arranged in five or six rows to give a tight spacing of just 2.5cm (1in), vibrate vigorously in work and tine angle is adjustable for different degrees of aggressiveness depending on the job that needs doing.

"It is a like a lawn rake," suggests Mr Braunton. "It will take out dead material but is also very effective against chickweed which is difficult and expensive to control with herbicide."

The implements are also used for breaking up and spreading yard manure and slurry, so its absorbed more quickly, and for aerating pasture to encourage spring growth and help trim fertiliser use.

An aggressive tine setting is used for the top-up seeding technique, not only to root out dead material in the bottom of the sward, but to scratch the soil surface and create a mini seed-bed. Seeding itself can be by broadcaster after one or two passes with the harrow or by using the harrow-seeder version which carries a seed box, metering system and pneumatic distribution fan and tubing.

Add-ons include a levelling bar across the first row of tines and vibrating rollers across the back of the machine to consolidate seed into the soil surface.

"Its an easy and cost-effective way of improving the composition of grass leys or patching up winter damage," says Mr Braunton. "How often you use it depends on the age of the sward and how hard its used. I now do a thorough reseeding after four years or so and tickle it up a bit before then if its needed."

Bolstering the population of better quality grasses or adding clover to existing swards is the most common practice, he reckons.

One pass with the plain harrow, spinning on the seed and harrowing again at right angles is one approach; two or three passes with the combined harrow-seeder, with seed going on during the second or final pass, also gets the job done.

"Its fast – in fact you need to go at a good speed to get the tines working really well – and it works in hard conditions but without pulling up big stones or boulders," notes Mr Braunton.

"The flexible tines and the individual tine frames also means it follows the ground well."

And with seed going on at 17-22kg/ha (15 to 20lb/acre), it is also economical, he maintains.

"We can keep more stock as a result of using this technique at Bodnant Ucka, we have had no need to rent extra summer grazing and were getting more silage," says Mr Braunton. "At the same time, we can over-winter cattle in the more sheltered fields, to save rented winter housing and bedding costs, and the harrow and a light seeding soon recovers any damage." &#42

Tine weeder add-ons include a seed box and metering system, levelling bar across the first row of tines and vibrating rollers across the back of the machine to consolidate seed into the soil surface, says John Braunton.

PASTURE REJUVENATION

&#8226 Use tined weeder as alternative to chain harrow.

&#8226 Add seed box, gives low-cost way to add new seed.

&#8226 Also takes out dead material, and chickweed.

The tined weeder is a useful alternative to the chain harrow at Bodnant Ucka. When used with a seed box it offers a low cost way of introducing fresh grass to leys. How often its used depends on the age of the sward.