19 May 2000

Top quality leys keep the feed coming all summer

THREE year grass/clover leys within an arable rotation allow one West Sussex unit to remain cost-effective on the South Downs.

Beef and sheep producer Chris Passmore of Applesham Farm, Coombes, near Lancing, runs the 344ha (850-acre) family farm. On it he keeps 100 head of spring calving Limousin cross and pure Limousin sucklers, and 400 April lambing Lleyn cross Texel ewes.

Combining with the livestock enterprise is a 175ha (430-acre) arable enterprise that consists mainly of first wheats following grass/clover leys. It is a fully integrated unit, mixing both arable and livestock.

According to Mr Passmore, his system follows traditional mixed farming, or in modern terms bio-diversity. "Grass acts as a break crop for cereals and cereals act as a break crop for grass leys," he said.

This method of farming keeps his loamy soils over chalk, fertile. Grass/clover leys build nitrogen soil levels for cereal crops. It also means he uses no nitrogen on grass.

"I am not anti nitrogen, but it seems a waste of money to use something you do not need." He also recognises growing good grass crops which last all summer is essential for his system.

"Any fool can grow grass in May, but the trick is to have good grass growth in July and August. It is no good saying I havent got any grass in late summer," he added.

"During summer my stocking rate increases as animals grow, so I want more grass rather than less." Mr Passmore was reluctant to cut forage and wrap it up in black plastic covered bales. This costs money and there seems no point to it. I want high quality herbage for stock to graze throughout the summer."

By late May he can tell whether he will have enough pasture for stock, but believes that high quality grass/clover leys ensure there is enough feed to last the summer.

In winter he practices traditional downland over-wintering with mature stock staying outside.

Because of chalky, light soils poaching and muddied leys are not so much of a worry. Beef cows spend all winter on a home-grown barley straw-based diet, after their calves are weaned in October.

Although ground conditions remain good, extra forage is needed and Mr Passmore feeds straw using a bale unroller that unwraps big bales in a strip across pasture.

In a wet winter, he said that it could look a mess but by the summer most of the uneaten straw would be trodden into the soil and incorporated.

Sheep too, spend all year outside, although between autumn and lambing they come off pasture and live on catch crops and stubbles instead.

To lamb they are housed in temporary straw bale pens set up on new Italian reseeds.

The mixed livestock system also had its part to play in maintaining stock healthy and parasite free, said Mr Passmore, who alternates pasture between cattle and sheep.

Twin-carrying ewes graze first-year leys, which are undersown in wheat crops, while ewes with single lambs graze third-year leys.

Cattle graze second year leys acting as a break and reducing worm burdens, but they will also graze sheep pastures and mop up extra grass where needed. &#42

High quality three-year grass/clover leys ensure that Chris Passmore (inset) has enough feed to last the summer on the South Downs.