To the layman, growing a field of grass is easy – a bit of sun, soil and water and you have a crop. But to really get the most from pasture one must adopt a far more scientific approach, beginning with healthy soil, diverse seed species and some careful planning.
Adrian Dolby, farm manager at Barrington Park Estate, Burford, Oxfordshire, has been experimenting with enriched grass mixes over the past seven years, with tremendous success.
“In 2005, we took the view that on our thin soils we needed to develop a low-cost system of production. And at the time, the 3,000ha estate ran 700 ewes and 100 suckler cows grazing permanent pasture, alongside an arable rotation,” he says. “We were lambing inside, and feeding silage and concentrates like most lowland flocks.”
The estate decided to convert to organic production, increasing the flock to its current 2,800 ewes, grazing fertility-building grass leys and living outdoors all year round.
Alternative grass species
In an attempt to improve the productivity and quality of the grass, Mr Dolby has introduced a range of alternative species, including timothy, cocksfoot and meadow fescue, as well as red, white, persian, crimson and alsike clovers.
Boosting the soil organic matter has also improved its moisture and nutrient retention, as well as microbial activity. And to reduce the risk of nematode, stem eelworm, and Sclerotinia problems with red clover, Mr Dolby sows half the leys with white clover, to ensure a five-year rotation around the farm.
Herbs and alternative forages
Mr Dolby has also introduced herbs like plantain, sheep’s parsley, yarrow and burnet to the mix, along with yellow trefoil, sainfoin, lucerne and chicory.
“The lucerne, sainfoin and chicory are drought-resistant – last year we had incredible growth in a dry year, and this year the lucerne is head and shoulders above anything else.”
Health and environmental benefits
With the aid of faecal egg counting, Mr Dolby has slashed the amount of wormers used. “We no longer worm anything routinely, which is a big financial saving,” he says.
He says there are also other health benefits from the grass mixes. “Previously, we were developing a big problem with Coccidiosis on permanent pasture, and although this has not gone away, we have seen much less since changing the grass management. Our post-lambing losses are very low now – we’re just not seeing the diseases we had before.”