Herbal Leys for Dairy

This field lab is looking to investigate consistent quality of forage through using diverse ley species, which have already proved to have multiple benefits for grazing livestock.

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Field Lab Timeline

    11/15/2017 12:00:00 AM
  • Initial idea discussions

    Initial idea discussions
  • 1/15/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Solidifying field lab aims and methods

    Solidifying field lab aims and methods
  • 1/22/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Methods finalised

    Methods finalised
  • 4/14/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Seed bought

    Seed bought
  • 4/29/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Field trial starts

    Field trial starts
  • 6/3/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Progress review

    Progress review
  • 7/8/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Data collection

    Data collection
  • 9/9/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • First year review

    First year review
  • 4/15/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Sow second year of leys

    Sow second year of leys
  • 6/30/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Review of monitoring methods meeting

    Review of monitoring methods meeting
  • 7/30/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Data collection

    Data collection
  • 10/31/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • End of year results analysis

    End of year results analysis
  • 3/10/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Data collection

    Data collection
  • 5/9/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Data collection

    Data collection
  • 7/9/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Data collection

    Data collection
  • 10/9/2020 11:00:00 PM
  • Results analysis

    Results analysis
  • 11/10/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Final review meeting

    Final review meeting
For further information hover over the above milestone marks
  • Discussion

    To see the latest activity please log-in (group members only).

  • Achievements

    September 2019

    Monitoring and sampling

    Farmer B, supported by the field lab coordinator took transects and collected forage samples from the trial plots in mid September. They noted that generally the trial ley is continuing to perform very well, with lots of forage present and a good diversity of species after a period with low rain fall. The farmer reported that cows have been performing just as well on the herbal leys. It has been interesting to compare the plot where a longer residual is being left – there is clearly greater grass growth since the cows were removed. Further monitoring and sampling will be done whilst the fields are still being grazed.

    A new herbal ley that was sown in April established really well and now has amazing amounts of lush forage available, and cows have been lightly grazing it for a week or two. A grass/clover ley that was sown at the same time is significantly behind.

    Some of the farmers involved have found it challenging to do the appropriate monitoring and data gathering through this season, and the group have agreed that they will continue the field lab into next year, with additional support to gather the relevant data throughout next years growing season. The data from whole field lab will then be collated and analysed by researchers at Reading University.

    Milestone: Data collection

    April 2019

    Second year monitoring and sampling

    The field lab coordinator has visited farmers in this group to review methodology and support the farmers in taking the first samples of the season. This involves taking several recordings from 2 or 3 randomly thrown quadrats just prior to the first grazing of the site. The following measurements were taken:
    - Plants within the quadrat were identified, using guides provided by Cotswold Seeds and Reading University, and species composition noted based on % cover of grasses, legumes and herbs, along with any key indicator present

    - Photographs taken of the quadrats

    - One quadrat selected for further nutritional analysis; cutting the forage ~7cm, recording the fresh weight, and freezing the sample to later be sent for analysis of dry matter, protein, fibre and ME value and samples taken and sent to Reading University for analysis to assess the dry weight content.

    The farmers in the group will follow this process on the trial sites prior to grazing throughout the season.

    Milestone: Review of monitoring methods meeting

    October 2018

    Progress review cont.

    As the group are sowing at different times, a form is being circulated to capture the state of all the leys and will be reviewed in spring.

    The group also looked over the Reading University trial plots – the herbs had done well (chicory mainly and some clovers - in individual spp plots the alsike clover was looking best, white clover didn't look great, sainfoin looked good as it often does well on chalk), but the grasses had not coped well in the drought. This is an interesting and positive initial result for the herbaceous leys.

    The farmers plan to meet again with the researcher and coordinator in Spring to refresh them on the methods of quadrat counts. This will happen either as a group at one farm, or individually.

    Milestone: Progress review

    October 2018

    Progress update

    The group met at Reading University to talk about what each farmer had done for sowing (please log in and see the attached methods document for details under ‘Field Lab Documents’).

    One of the farmers couldn't attend the meeting but sent on an update to say that they have sown 12 acres of herbal leys on ground which they have never sown them on before. Farmer D sowed in spring but the field flooded 3 days, later was waterlogged for 3 days and then the drought hit over summer. Chicory and plantain is patchy but has grown, the grass has not done as well. It was grazed twice this year, but the farmer thinks that perhaps it shouldn't have, and is going to scatter more seed this autumn to try and fill in patches after poor establishment.

    Farmer A has sown this autumn. Farmer B under-sowed a pea barley mix in May and then harvested 10 weeks later for whole-crop. The herbs and legumes came up but no grass, except on the headland. The latter was rolled more so he thinks he needs to roll more in centre of field. He’s now over-seeding with grass to try and fill out the gaps, in consultation with Cotswold Seeds. The grass sown includes fescue, cocksfoot, rye amongst others. He did get it established but unfortunately it died in the summer drought due to having a shallower root system. The mix has lots of chicory and is looking fantastic now, he has put on sheep and is thinking of putting dairy cows on too – this was advised against by the seed company, however with two years of poor weather and yields, there is a need to use it as forage.

    Farmer F has sown 10 acres earlier in the year, Farmer E has also sown, and both will report on his observations soon. Farmer G has moved to a new farm with herbal leys existing and so will do the trial on that.

    Milestone: Progress review

    July 2018

    Data collection method meeting

    Due to the dry weather this spring and summer, the meeting has been postponed.

    Most of the triallists have not been able to sow their leys yet, however those that are using existing leys or have managed to sow and get some growth are hoping to take measurements. The group coordinator is sending out measuring equipment for the farmers to do this.

    Milestone: Data collection

    June 2018

    Measuring Forage Diversity & Growth

    The group coordinator and researcher have written a blog and made a video for the group and others interested in measuring forage diversity and growth. The method aims to be simple and useable for farmers.

    Please see the webpage here: https://innovativefarmers.org/news/2018/june/15/how-to-measure-forage-diversity-growth/?utm_source=Organic+Farming+News+-+Post+GDPR&utm_campaign=297ba94287-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_04_24_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d21495ad10-297ba94287-

    Milestone: Field trial starts

    April 2018

    Herbal ley seed

    For those not using existing herbal leys, new seed has now been purchased for sowing later in the season.

    Milestone: Seed bought

    February 2018

    Data collection methods

    Dates will be recorded when the cows enter and exit a trial location and from both parts of the grazing area the following records will be taken before the cows enter the site and then once exiting the site.

    From three randomly thrown quadrats farmers will record species composition, based on % cover grasses, legumes and herbs. Additionally farmers will identify where possible presence of key indicator species such as Chicory, Ribgrass forage herb, Burnett, Yarrow, Trefoil and Clovers where possible. Photographs of the quadrat will be taken in order to help verify species composition where there are uncertainties.

    The researcher will visit some of the farms at key points where possible to assess sward diversity. Due to the fast nature of the decisions that will be made by the farmers when moving the herd, it won't be possible for the researcher to carry out quadrat recordings before and after leaving the trial sites. The researcher may also undertake soil health/structure monitoring on visiting the farms.

    The forage in the quadrat will be cut and weighed and then some of the samples will be sent for nutrient analysis (potentially including protein and fibre content and ME value) as well as dry matter content. Raw height measurements using a plate meter will also be taken by the farmers.

    Milestone: Solidifying field lab aims and methods

    February 2018

    Agreed methods

    The agreed methods aim to look at grazing frequency on:

    1. Established mixes, considering the impact primarily on species composition, dry matter availability and feed quality.

    2. The impact of grazing frequency on newly established herbal leys – where a bespoke mix is selected for that specific farm.

    On each farm farmers will select 3 locations, were possible one site will be in a newly sown sward, one is a sward 1-2 years old and then a third in an older sward (3/4+ years).

    On some farms there will be perhaps only one site to monitor in the first year as the herbal ley sown this spring will be the first diverse sward on the farm. Other farms will not have new leys sown this spring so will only be monitoring older swards in this first year.

    When the grazing cycle moves around the farm and hits one of the identified locations. The paddock or grazing strip (if strip grazed) will be divided in two. The cows will be left to graze one part of the area to leave the sward at what the farmer would personally consider an “optimal” residual (A). The other half of the sward the cows will be removed early (this is yet to be defined – by measuring via days or height on the plate meter), so that the residual remaining is greater that the considered “optimal” height (B). Optimal height and greater residual height will be measured using a plate meter.

    New herbal leys sown in spring

    Bespoke mixes will be selected for the individual farms that are able to sow new herbal leys this spring. Ian Wilkinson will advise on appropriate mixes for each farm.

    Milestone: Solidifying field lab aims and methods

    February 2018

    Agreed aims

    Grazing frequency and management through the season will be investigated in order to:

    1. Optimise sward regrowth after grazing and

    2. Optimise longevity of species diversity in order to maintain a harmonious balance of species throughout the season (over 4+ years)

    Both of these elements should then optimise the nutritional value of the sward throughout the season and analysis of this will be competed.

    Additionally the trial will provide an opportunity for the farmers involved to gain additional skills in species identification in their fields. They will also be able to compare the effects of management and varying seed mixes on different farms with varying soil types and climate.

    Milestone: Solidifying field lab aims and methods

    February 2018

    Cotswold Seeds Herbal Leys Guide

    Please see the attached pdf under 'Field Lab Documents' for a Herbal Leys Guide produced by Cotswold Seeds, which includes case studies of herbal leys used for different farming systems.

    Milestone: Field trial starts

    February 2018

    Aims and methods discussion

    The group including 8 of the farmers, coordinator Kate Still, herbal leys specialist Ian Wilkinson and researcher Anna Tompson met to outline their priorities for the field lab aims and leading on from this their methods.

    Many of the farmers are already growing herbal leys whilst others aren't, bringing a good range of experience to the group. Some have a few year old swards, whilst others have been growing them for several years. Most of the group will be planting new leys this spring of a bespoke mix for their farm, and/or focus grazing management on existing swards of varying ages.

    As those that already grow herbal leys feel confident that they do improve soil health and have benefits to their livestock, the aim focused on determining the following:

    a) What is the nutrient value of the herbal ley swards (at varying ages)

    b) How can the herbal leys be best managed for optimal species diversity, longevity and forage production

    Initial methods looked at giving different lengths of grazing time (one strip longer than another) to evaluate the effects on the sward. Additionally the effect on regrowth of the sward depending on the height of residual left. Farmers will likely take sward cuttings from quadrats to be sent off for nutrient and dry matter analysis, as well as recording the species present and weighing fresh weight of the forage. These measures will be taken before the cows go in and once removed.

    Some farmers undertake mob grazing whilst others paddock graze, so these differing systems will need to take different approaches to the trial. Weather also influences the growth of the leys, and the farmers will therefore judge when the optimal height of the sward (instead of a fixed number of days grazing) and then have an option which leave a greater residual.

    This methodology is still under progress and the next steps will be to solidify how each farmer undertakes the field lab.

    Milestone: Solidifying field lab aims and methods

    January 2018

    Methods meeting

    The group will be meeting again on the 1st February in the Cotswolds to discuss and crystallise their trial methods for the year ahead. Please contact us for further information if you would like to be involved.

    Milestone: Solidifying field lab aims and methods

    November 2017

    First group meeting for initial ideas

    The group shared details of existing practices /experience with herbal leys. Most of the group have been growing some, ranging from a few fields to 2/3 of farm. Generally they are very impressed with their ability to produce lots of forage, dry out wet fields, improve soil structure, positive signs regarding heard health & fertility. The group want to understand them better and want to demonstrate this consistency and reliability to others while maintaining production.

    The researcher introduced a new trial at Reading University which focuses on beef cattle, looking at 3 herbal leys of varying diversity compared to a rye grass control and monitoring cattle growth rates and nutrient utilisation.

    Ian Wilkinson from Cotswold Seeds gave some background on herbal leys for dairy farms. He highlighted how dairy farmers need confidence in consistent quality forage but how herbal leys could lower cost of production (no fertiliser input required), extend the grazing season, are drought resistant, have medicinal benefits, better extraction of soil minerals as deep rooting, and can be included as part of Environmental Stewardship. However they need to be managed well to maintain diversity, rotational grazing and mob grazing most effective with back fencing to allow regrowth to establish.

    On a farm walk the group looked at a variety of herbal leys at varying ages and considered the diversity of species, ground cover, grass regrowth, soil health/structure. Additionally there were discussions on how to measure total dry matter with herbal leys, the flaws of plate metering, benefits of fixed rotation, length of grazing round, what seed mixes to use and the amount of grass in the mix.

    There is interest in nutrient/medicinal benefits but most felt this isn't suitable for field trials. The initial impressions are that the success of the field lab will be predominantly measured in production. The group will be meeting again in the new year to solidify field lab aims.

    Milestone: Initial idea discussions

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