Forage production for improved animal performance (IOTA/SOLID)

Chair:Mark Measures (IOTA)

The aim of the workshop was to draw on research and practical experience of multi-species leys to improve forage species selection and management to maximise animal production and building soil fertility.

Session summary

Diverse swards or multi-species leys are a key element for improved forage production, soil fertility and animal performance. These aspects are particularly important as declining forage production in organic and low-input farms can affect the economic sustainability of farms. Mark Measures from IOTA chaired the session and facilitated discussions on understanding how farmers can build up soil organic matter which is the key for improved forage production and thus, animal performance. The session speakers (Ian Wilkinson (Cotswold Seeds), Wil Armitage (Nuffield scholar, Keythorpe Farms) and Clyde Jones (Bistern Farm) are enormously experienced and all emphasised the importance of the multi-species leys for pasture-fed dairy herds. Ian Wilkinson focused on three strategic points for a dairy farmer (i.e soil, healthy livestock and economics) and pointed out the “massive over yield effect when you combine different plat species”. Ian gave examples of farmers that have reduced dramatically the provision of concentrate feeds as a result of grazing diverse swards and highlighted the nutritional and medicinal value of the multi-species leys. Wil Armitage, is managing a 380 cow organic dairy herd and is experienced in low-input grazing systems. Wil pointed out that plant diversity increases forage quality and builds resilience in soils and farming systems while the overuse of chemicals is destroying the vital links and synergies between the soil, soil biology and the plants being grown. Clyde Jones, a conventional farmer with great interest in increasing soil organic matter, focused on the establishment of multi-species leys, and pointed out that some legumes and herbs may be difficult to establish while intensive grazing should be avoided in the early years. Soil fertility requires a minimum of 4 years to build up and it is affected positively by high residuals and long rotations.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Management of the soil is fundamental in the production of quality food
  • Nitrogen-fixing legumes can reduce the necessity for fertilisers.
  • Species-rich legume-based leys can maximise synergies pasture productivity and other ecosystem services

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Ian Wilkinson (Cotswold Seeds): The benefits of complex mixtures for livestock farmers (2.23mb pdf file)

How using herbal leys and other complex mixtures brings benefits in terms of healthy soil, healthy animals and money in the bank.

Clyde Jones/William Waterfield (The Farm Consultancy Group): Managing multi species leys (Herbal / Diverse Swards) for diary, beef and sheep (4.55mb pdf file)

Do multi species swards grow more dry matter than ryegrass based leys? Are multi species leys more productive than ryegrass based swards under organic and low input systems? These are two of the questions that William and a group of farmers have been trying to answer over the last few years. Whilst many questions remain and challenges will need to be addresses it does seem that multi species herbal leys have an important role to play in both the short term forage output and as a way in the longer term of building soil organic matter. During this workshop we will discuss the importance of quality as well as quantity, and how longer grazing rotations can be used to ensure an extended grazing season and less reliance on conserved forages. We will look at what factors need to be considered in designing a diverse ley mixture. Managing these swards on a mob grazing basis does seem to have enabled soil organic matter to be built up faster than one is normally led to believe.

Wil Armitage (Organic dairy farmer at Keythorpe Farms): Managing soils and using organic fertilizers to achieve high Brix forage (5.44mb pdf file)

Starting with the Soil mineral Base Saturation levels and a plant diverse crop or diverse cropping rotation, the aim is to produce a fertilizer plan that will stimulate and multiply soil microbes to mobilise soil minerals, absorb nitrogen from the air and produce large amounts of high integrity forage with a high Brix level. He will draw from these experiences and his own organic dairy farming business to give an insight into how he aims to increase Dry Matter yields to 10 t DM /ha from his grazing platform.

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