Oats are the best cereal crop to fit into an organic farming system as they suppress weeds and are a nutritious feed for livestock, according to one Gloucestershire estate.
The Daylesford farm is focused largely on producing milk and meat, but oats and triticale are very useful break crops for old tired grassland on some of the estate’s heavier land.
Senior farms manager Richard Smith says he looks for cereal crops with an upright growth habit to suppress weeds as he cannot use any herbicides across the 80ha of cereals on the 1,000ha estate, which is 3 miles east of Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds.
“Across the board, spring and winter oats are the best bet to grow in an organic system and we have had success with both,” he says.
Organically grown oat crops are budgeted to yield 5t/ha and last summer made 7.5t/ha, while triticale, which fits in very well as a second cereal after oats, can yield 2.5-5.0t/ha.
Mr Smith points out that oats are a very hardy crop to grow, are richer in energy than other cereals due to their higher oil content, and are very palatable for cattle and sheep.
Daylesford, which is owned by the Bamford family, who also own the JCB tractor and construction equipment manufacturer, have been farming organically for over 35 years and have shops at the Cotswolds farm and in London. The family also owns a 1,200ha organic farm in Staffordshire, near the headquarters of JCB.
Livestock on the estate include 120 dairy cattle, 400 suckler cows and 4,500 sheep, which supply the shops every week of the year with 150 fat lambs and 15 finished cattle, while 100% of the milk goes through its own dairy to make milk, yoghurt and cheese.
Meat sales are up by 24% in the past year. The farm supplies the shop on the estate and its three shops in upmarket areas of the capital – Notting Hill, Pimlico and Marylebone.
Back on the estate, half of the land is typical light Cotswold brash and the other half is heavy blue clay by the River Evenlode, a tributary of the River Thames.
Whereas oats provide a break for old grassland on the heavier soils, Mr Smith is enthusiastic about using sainfoin as a seven to eight-year break on the lighter Cotswold brash land for grazing and silage.
Sainfoin is a legume that thrives without any nitrogen fertiliser and grows particularly well on light, drought-prone alkaline soils such as those found in the Cotswolds. It covered 25% of the hills before the advent of nitrogen fertiliser in the early half of the last century, which prompted many farmers to switch to grass.
The sainfoin crop has anthelmintic properties, which reduce livestock worm burdens, and contains condensed tannins that can protect animals against bloat, which can be common with other legumes like clover.
Mr Smith points out that the main problem with sainfoin is at establishment, when it needs to be drilled in May onwards into a warm seedbed, and there might not be any grazing or cutting in the first year.
The Daylesford Foundation, which runs the Gloucestershire estate, along with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Organic Research Centre, are leading lights in setting up Agricology, which looks to bridge the gap between organic farming and “conventional” farming and look at more resilient sustainable farming systems.