At a recent workshop run by the Advanced Training Partnership (ATP), which is currently delivering postgraduate distance learning for people working in the agri-food industry (www.atp-pasture.org.uk), Dr.Iwan Owen of IBERS gave a great précis of UK grassland farming.
Grass is the UK’s predominant crop because climatic conditions allow a long growing season – in some parts it never stops. Research and good management have highlighted grassland’s potential for producing good food – well managed systems can result in high milk and meat output with little or no extra feed.
However, most farmers do not capitalise on the possible grass growth – with figures quoted as high as 50% wasted/not used. But then grass is not an easy crop to manage, with seasonal fluctuations and wide differences in growth from year to year.
Grassland is not this country’s natural ‘climax’ vegetation, left to its own devices our landscape would revert to forest. Since the clearing of trees, cultivation, grazing and cutting have formed most of the pastures we know today.
There are mere pockets of ‘native’ grassland left – eg on lowland chalk, dry acid heaths and upland hay meadows. These are protected as priority habitats under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
Seventy-three per cent of the UK’s agricultural area is grass – of that 58% is cultivated, with 17% of this down to a short term ley. While the amount of temporary grass has remained around 1.5 million hectares since 1875 – changes in the amount of permanent pasture are more marked, with a dramatic fall during World War 2 (Table 1).
Table 1: Changes in land use (Defra 2012) M ha
Permanent Pasture 1875 1938 1944 1980 1997
Permanent Pasture 5.39 7.01 4.37 4.64 4.64
Art or science?
Dr Owen remarked that grassland management used to be thought of as an art – but is now becoming much more a science. Also that the best grassland farmers in UK are leading the research into what works and what doesn’t work here.
This was obvious in a workshop visit to Staffordshire milk producer Steve Brandon, who has been running a profitable, grass-based system for 12 years.
Steve, a previous winner of the British Grassland Society National Grassland Management Competition, leads the field in this type of dairy farming – but has to look to research carried out in Ireland and New Zealand for technical innovation to apply to his farm.
Once upon a time – the UK led the world in grassland R&D and technology transfer – even exporting its grass breeding breakthroughs to New Zealand in the 1950s.
While New Zealand agriculture has prospered on the back of this, the UK has some catching up to do. Hopefully this is something graduates of the ATP-pasture training programme can help address in future