Farmer Focus: Mixed species leys need wise selection

From mid-March to May we had only 14mm of rain. The recently drilled wholecrop and fodder beet were starting to suffer, and we decided to delay sowing grass, lucerne and red clover.

Luckily, before mowing first cut, we welcomed 20mm and grass growth lifted to 80kg/day.

Weather, like milk price, is out of our control. We must adapt, set our boundaries and plan around the risks. On the plus side, the dry period has made grazing effortless, and stock have loved it.

See also: 7 top tips on establishing herbal leys

About the author

Jonathan Hughes
Livestock Farmer Focus writer
Jonathan Hughes and family run a 650-head organic autumn block-calving dairy herd with followers on 435ha (1,075 acres) in Leicestershire, selling milk to Arla. Livestock are intensively grazed throughout the growing season, with all forage crops grown in-house.
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Rising costs and pressure for farmers to become “regen” have seen farms adopt mixed species leys.

This has been encouraged further by the grassland soils standard of the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot highlighting payments to include legumes and herbs with the grass seed mixes. 

Some might argue it is lining the pockets of various plant breeders, selling expensive seed which has high promises with limited UK research.

I watch this space with interest, but I’m also a little cynical, with many of the mixed species evolving from different climates and grown under diverse management practices. 

Establishing a grazing ley is often a 10-year investment, costing £500/ha or more, including cultivations.

If your mixed species ley has poor persistence, or is dominated by one species after year two, was that the desired outcome? 

How would this ley perform compared with a standard perennial ryegrass (PRG) and white clover mix, and will it be difficult to manage?

I believe it is important to tailor a mix to soil type and management, rather than buy a “standard” multi-species mix without knowing its components and how they will benefit your system. 

We are organic, so red clover and lucerne suit our silage leys. However, in a grazing ley, they have a high bloat risk, and the fragile crown would be trampled in wet conditions.

White clover works well in grazing leys (we aim for 30% cover) provided a medium-leaf clover is used, which is less likely to smother out the PRG. 

With the right conditions this can provide more than 270kg N/ha, so what else could be brought to the party?  Plantain, maybe, on the freer draining and more drought-prone soils. 

This could improve the sward’s summer nutritive value and assist with drought tolerance, but again this can be exposed to treading damage.