Opinion: Livestock in the rotation is the solution for crops

Purely arable farms belong in the 20th century. We need to see a return to mixed farming where livestock and forage leys form a significant part of the arable rotation.

There are numerous reasons why this should happen. As an industry, we have become over-reliant on agrochemicals, both fertilisers and sprays.

These have worked reasonably well for the past 60 years, but now we are seeing more and more the long-term detrimental effects of pursuing the chemical route.

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Farmers instinctively know that current practices aren’t sustainable. We’ve seen yields plateau, we’ve seen super-resistant blackgrass and other weeds, we’re seeing soil erosion and flood damage.

These problems have crept up on us, and it is only in the last few years that the industry has started to become aware of the damage these practices are doing.

My solution is to return to a more biological form of farming, and I see livestock as a key component of that. We are returning to the practices of our forefathers but with a 21st century understanding of the science behind the activity.

Our knowledge of soils is growing by the week, as is our understanding of the bacteria, fungi, microscopic organisms and larger soil dwellers that help to recycle organic matter and stabilise our soils.

In some respects, we are behind the curve. I was lucky enough to be awarded a Nuffield scholarship in 2011 and travelled to places as far afield as Canada and Argentina.

The Argentinians, in particular, were fully integrating livestock into their arable systems. They would have four or five years of fertility-building forage leys, then a similar period of cash cropping.

I do acknowledge that there are problems to be overcome. For example, we will have to adapt our practices to suit the UK weather.

Probably of greater importance is the lack of infrastructure. In years gone by, virtually every arable farm also had a mix of livestock and so had fences, hedges and watering points in most fields.

These have disappeared from many of our farms along with the skills to manage and husband livestock.

We therefore need to think differently to overcome such potential pitfalls. It is possible to erect a “permanent” fence on a temporary basis nowadays, and you only need a good fence round the boundary of a block.

Internally, a single strand of electric fence will keep cattle on the patch you want to graze.

There are also opportunities for farmers to work together. Simple grazing licences, short term tenancies, share farming or other joint ventures can all provide solutions to address the lack of livestock skills on arable farms.

There are many livestock farmers, especially younger farmers, who are crying out for access to additional land. If arable farmers are serious about bringing livestock back to their land, then they should consider such arrangements.

What we need is a joined-up approach to make this happen.

Tom Chapman is head of Regenerative Agriculture at Innovation for Agriculture – a charity based at Stoneleigh, which aims to bridge the knowledge gap between farmers and researchers. It is holding a one-day conference on “Animals to Arable” in Elveden, Suffolk on 4 March.

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