ELS options for livestock

Recent changes to the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme mean it could be even easier for livestock farmers to qualify. Olivia Cooper reports

As ELS celebrates its fifth birthday this year and the first agreements come up for renewal, a number of new options are available. Whether renewing or considering entering for the first time, livestock producers on mixed farms should find it relatively easy to qualify, according to speakers at a recent farm walk in Devon.

Host farmer Richard Camp, who runs a suckler herd at Ashburton, believes the scheme is more straightforward than many farmers realise. “I thought it was going to be too much hassle, so I never bothered with it. But in the end I didn’t really need to make any changes. It’s our money that’s being modulated so we might as well get it back.”

Horsehill Farm is a tenanted farm with permanent and temporary leys, maize silage, fodder beet and cereal whole-crop, some of which falls into a Severely Disadvantaged Area. “The year that fertiliser prices shot up I decided not to apply nitrogen fertiliser to any of the grazing land,” said Mr Camp. Instead, he invested in an aerator to reduce compaction and improve yields. “With cross-compliance leading us in a certain direction, I realised I could get almost all the points I needed to quality for ELS through low input grassland alone. In the end, it was quick and easy to apply and required little work on my part.”

FWAG adviser Sally Hope-Johnson, who led the farm walk and helped Mr Camp with his ELS application, said most mixed livestock farmers should find it relatively easy to qualify. “There are quite a few new options which might make it a bit easier.”

The first step was to ensure all maps were accurate and included shrubland, woodland, quarries and ponds, to show environmental interest. “And get a copy of the 2010 handbook, as things have changed.”

Simple grassland options include managing pasture with either low or very low inputs. Low input systems limit inorganic fertiliser applications to 50kg/ha a year or 100kg/ha of total nitrogen, including livestock manure. Very low inputs prescribe no inorganic nitrogen use, but up to 12.5t/ha of farmyard manure. “You probably can’t therefore put your silage fields in, and you can’t plough, cultivate or reseed for the five-year agreement.” However, steep sections of fields, or off-lying permanent pasture could be ideal, scooping 85 points/ha for low input or up to 150 points for very low input grassland.

“In total you need to average 30 points/ha across the farm, which will pay £30/ha each year. In the organic scheme that rises to £60/ha, and £62/ha in the new Uplands ELS, which is intended to replace the Hill Farming Allowance.” A new prescription over sward height – at least 20% of which must be less than 7cm, and the same percentage over 7cm, should not prove problematic. “It is aimed at avoided bowling-green paddocks – and does not apply when you have closed the field up for hay or silage.”

Options to manage maize crops to prevent soil erosion and runoff provide 18 points/ha, and could be rotated around the farm. “I think Natural England needs to offer more points for this, as it is something they need to tackle, but it could be of use to some producers wanting to undersow, establish an autumn-sown crop, or plough the field after harvest.”

Hedgerows, however, could yield a considerable number of points, providing 11 points for every 100m managed – double if both sides of the hedge were included, said Mrs Hope-Johnson. Hedges must only be trimmed once every two years, so ash or sycamore hedges and those on roadsides are not be suitable. Woody growth must be at least 1.5m above the bank – and tagging new hedgerow trees for growth offered more points.

Earth or grassed banks yield 14 points/100m, and should be protected and maintained in a traditional manner. “If you have a hedge on top of a bank, you can now claim for both.”

New arable options include reduced herbicide cereals followed by winter stubbles, providing 195 points. Winter cover crops, buffer strips and wild bird mixes could also be chosen, some of which could be rotated around the farm. “Take the smallest area you are likely to be using over the five years, to ensure you have sufficient eligible land entered in each year.”

Following whole-crop silage cereals with winter stubble, including low herbicide and pesticide use, could offer 230 points/ha. “It’s a good points earner – but is limited to 5ha a farm.”

Woodland edges were another valuable resource, she added. “You can get 380 points/ha for managing woodland edges and not cultivating within 6m of the wood. You can also get four points/100m for maintaining fences beside native and ancient woodland.” Buffering in-field trees offers 11 points a tree on grass and 16 points on arable land. “There are plenty of options to choose from. If anything feels slightly borderline, don’t go for it – you need to choose the options you feel comfortable with.”

New buffer strips options, for both grassland and arable, include 12m strips on cultivated land alongside watercourses or hedges. Other choices ranged from 2m to 6m, over which no manure, fertiliser or spray could be applied. “You are protecting something of value, but remember the buffer strip measurement is in addition to the 2m cross-compliance regulations. You can get 400 points/ha for a 4m buffer strip on arable land, but always slightly underestimate your areas, and try to score 10% points more than you need, to provide a safety factor.

“Most mixed farmers should be able to get into ELS relatively easily – intensive dairy or arable producers may find they need to change more to score the points.” However, as part of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, Mrs Hope-Johnson urged farmers to take up some of the more unusual options like Skylark plots, unfertilised headlands – or even more valuable, unharvested headlands – and wild bird seed mixes, which could be sown as game cover crops, yielding up to 450 points/ha.

To encourage farmers to renew or start ELS agreements, FWAG has teamed up with the NFU to offer members a discount on preparing and submitting applications.

Uplands ELS

Set up to replace the Hill Farming Allowance, the UELS applies to Severely Disadvantaged Areas. Farms below the moorland line receive £62/ha, as do those above the line with field sizes below 15ha. Those above the line, but with field sizes greater than 15ha receive £23/ha.

Some prescriptions are compulsory, including fertiliser buffer strips and rotating feeding locations. “They are basically good farming practice and are not difficult to achieve – and they provide 11 points to start with,” said Mrs Hope-Johnson.

Although uplands farmers could choose some normal ELS options, they also had extra alternatives like hedgerow restoration and grazing of pasture by cattle. “Just grazing with cattle provides 30 points. Qualifying for the UELS is no more difficult than lowland ELS, although you need 62 points it is reasonably easy to work them up.”

However, the UELS could be more difficult to navigate, so producers should consider seeking help from an adviser, she added.