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Livestock in the arable rotation: What you should consider

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British farmers will always see feeding the nation as their priority. But as British agriculture itself moves into a new era, changes in the way we grow and produce that food are inevitable.

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Pondering the return of livestock into an arable rotation?

Whether faced with problem weeds, as a move towards improving soil health, or part of a regenerative agricultural strategy, it’s a move many farmers are considering.

Sheep grazing in a field

© Barenbrug

When was the last time your land carried livestock? For many farmers, the answer often lies in a previous generation’s tenure and a move to consolidate operations.

But as so often in farming, things come full circle.

A revived interest in the benefits that livestock bring to a farming operation – diversity, alternative nutrient sources, soil health, to mention a few – combined with the inevitable push towards improved agricultural sustainability and encouragement for a more ‘circular’ agri-economy, have pushed livestock and arable integration back into the spotlight.

Ask yourself why

“For every farmer considering the return of livestock to their farm, there’s a reason that’s specific to their situation and their way of farming,” says Mhairi, “so when faced with a question about ‘how’ to bring livestock back, my first response is always ‘why?’

“Ask yourself what problem you’re hoping to solve. What goal are you working towards? Only when you’re clear about those reasons are you in a position to start planning a strategy,” Mhairi points out.

Weed control

Mhairi points to blackgrass – commonly cited by UK arable farmers as their most troublesome weed – as being one of the original influences on the return of grassland.

“Let’s face it, blackgrass is the classic arable headache. There’s no single solution: a black-grass control strategy requires skill, patience, expensive inputs, careful machinery management, and a hefty dose of good luck with external factors such as weather.

“But despite blackgrass’s reputation as a survivalist, that’s only the case when it’s in your cereal crop.

“Put it amongst a well-chosen set of other grass species – as in a quality mixed grass and herbal ley, but sown at a much higher rate – and it doesn’t stand a chance; the higher plant populations will smother the black-grass and outcompete it before it has a chance to set seed.”

An alternative blackgrass control strategy, still employing the ‘power’ of grassland, is to use a conventional seed rate but cut the sward before the blackgrass heads and sets seed.

Mhairi says it’s not for the faint-hearted: “You have got to be completely on top of the situation – frequent monitoring so that you’re ready to cut – and cut again – as soon as you spot those seed-heads.”

But Mhairi points to an encouraging study from AHDB that demonstrated a 90 per cent reduction in seed burdens, over two years, from such an approach.

Soil health 

It’s not just about weed control, however. Another key focus for arable farmers is the growing fascination in using grassland to improve and enhance soil health and soil organic matter.

Here, grassland offers many benefits, especially where a mixed sward is used.

“Every species has a different rooting habit,” Mhairi explains. “A varied root system of wide, branched, fibrous and deep roots brings the most benefit, helping with soil stability, drought tolerance, water infiltration and water-holding capacity, to mention a few.

“One of the more interesting aspects of a mixed root system is in the root exudates, too – the myriad of plant chemicals produced by roots, which in turn feed a competitive population of soil microbes. A healthy soil biome dramatically increases nutrient cycling.”

Mhairi says many arable farmers will be familiar with the ‘legume legacy’ after a break crop such as beans. Legumes can capture as much as 150kg/ha of nitrogen every year, much of which is left in residual form for subsequent crops in the rotation.

“Some farmers have found that they can reduce nitrogen inputs by as much as a quarter in a first wheat following grass,” says Mhairi. “Given current movements in fertiliser pricing, that’s an attractive proposition.

“Of course, it’s not just about costs. Carbon is another consideration, and there’s a growing realisation that grassland provides a superb decarbonisation opportunity, whether in short-term or long-term form.

“And of course, it doesn’t have to be grass. There’s a broad range of forage species, all of which can benefit the arable rotation.

White clover, red clover, lucerne are some of the more well-known, but there’s momentum with forage herbs such as chicory and plantain, too, while forage brassicas have long played a ‘catch crop’ role in many parts of the country.”

Where is the livestock coming from?

Mhairi concludes her advice with one important consideration: where is the livestock coming from?

“Are you going to run stock yourself? Or would you be better offering your land to a neighbouring stock farmer? Or perhaps there is opportunity to enter a share-farming agreement with a new entrant – you provide the land, they provide the stock and labour.

“The route you go down will dictate your strategy, because the grazing requirements for a breeding flock of sheep will be very different from that needed for finishing short-keep lambs.

“There are now quite a few areas in the country where livestock is a rarity. Opening up the rotation to include livestock, unless you’re set on a new enterprise yourself, isn’t going to be for everyone.”

Reassuringly, she says that that shouldn’t dissuade farmers from enjoying the benefits of grass and forage crops. “I’m a livestock person, so I don’t see that it’s ever a negative to bring back grass and livestock.

“But there are always alternatives – consider an environmental scheme, for example, or whether a local AD plant needs feedstuffs.”

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