Word from the sponsor

Grassland is this country’s biggest crop and largest carbon store and its effective management is the foundation of sustainable livestock production. While grassland farmers strive to produce dietary protein efficiently, they are also maintaining soil carbon. With farm subsidies moving from direct payments to Environmental Land Management schemes, grassland is becoming a powerful tool in UK farming’s future. As a leading grass and forage seed specialist centred on research and innovation, Germinal has created grass varieties which give farmers more productivity from less inputs and reduce livestock emissions, lessening their environmental impact.

Germinal is delighted this new award celebrates progressive grassland farmers achieving their production goals sustainably and is committed
to helping farmers gain the most from pasture-based systems. Good grassland managers leave nothing to chance, having a clear understanding of grass supply across their farm through meticulous measurement and use of quality data. This allows them the opportunity to push the boundaries and raise standards. This new award recognising excellent grassland managers is set to inspire learning and share best practice throughout the industry.

Grassland Farmer of the Year

With the advent of the new Grassland Farmer of the Year category at the British Farming Awards, Sara Gregson reviews some of the advances made in grassland management over the years and the increasing number of farmers recognising its importance.

Forage is worth nothing until consumed by the intended ruminant. Not surprisingly then, there is no doubt grassland management and utilisation are viewed more seriously now by dairy, beef and sheep farmers than ever before. This change has come about most noticeably as economic, environmental and political challenges have forced farmers to find ways to cut costs and increase their output from home-grown feed. After all, grass grown on-farm and grazed in situ is always the cheapest. Here are three areas of grassland management which have taken off in recent years:

1. Rotational grazing

In the 1970s and 1980s, the focus turned away from growing as much grass as possible and grazing it efficiently. Set stocking, where animals roamed a large field for several days or weeks, all-year-round calving and the feeding of increasing amounts of concentrates were common. But in the mid-1980s, the British Grassland Society encouraged experts from New Zealand to come to the UK to promote better grassland management through rotational grazing and spring block calving. Rotational grazing improves grass utilisation – often by up to 20 per cent. It brings a focus on how grass grows with rotation lengths of three to four weeks allowing grass to recover between grazings and provide a steady supply of high-quality feed. Successful rotational grazing
requires farmers to know how much grass is growing. This means measuring swards weekly and analysing online. This helps them see how their fields are performing and identify looming surpluses or shortfalls ahead of time. It also means less well-performing fields can be ear-marked for reseeding. GrassCheckGB, a collaborative monitoring project tracking grass growth across 50 cattle and sheep farms over the past three years, showed average annual yield across the project of 9.4-9.5 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (3.8-3.84t DM/acre).When this is compared to average figures of about 7.5t DM/ha (3t DM/acre) for dairy farms and just under 5t DM/ha (2t DM/acre) for beef and sheep farms, it highlights the benefits of measuring to manage.

2. Multi-species swards

There has been an explosion of interest in multi-species leys, primarily on beef and sheep farms, but also increasingly on dairy farms. While seed mixtures containing perennial ryegrasses and clovers remain popular, multi-species mixes contain herbs in addition to grasses and legumes. Most commonly, mixtures contain different types of grasses, nitrogen-fixing clovers, including deep-rooting red clover and herbs such as plantain and chicory. There are currently many research programmes investigating the benefits of multi-species leys – confirming many of the advantages previously recorded anecdotally by farmers. These benefits include equal or greater yields than traditional perennial ryegrass and clover leys particularly after two to three years of growth and with less fertiliser due to clover’s nitrogen-fixing ability. The different growth patterns of each species also extend the productive season of the ley. Biodiversity gains include larger numbers of earthworms which are good for water infiltration and soil aeration, as well as more insects and other wildlife. Improved animal health through lower worm burdens has also been seen. There are still many practical questions around how to establish multi-species swards, how to retain the herb element and how best to graze them, but most farmers trying multi-species are keen to continue.

3. Multi-cut silage

Silage remains the main conserved forage, stored mainly in clamps and fed to housed cattle in winter. An increase in overwintering, where soils are suitably free-draining, has also led to more bale grazing, where bales are set out in summer to be grazed alongside a forage crop in winter. The most recent change in management is a move towards multi-cut silage, reducing the time between cuts from the traditional six weeks to four. This means it is possible to achieve five cuts in the season, yielding the same or slightly higher than a three-cut system, but producing higher quality silage. This is because younger grass has a higher protein and energy content and D-value. This higher quality forage helps reduce bought-in feed use and its associated costs.