It takes a brave man to sow half his cropping area down to herbal leys all in one go.

But Tim May, managing director of the 1,000ha Kingsclere Estate, has done just that – in the firm belief this is the economically and environmentally sustainable path his business needs to take.

Tim, the fourth generation of his family to run farming operations on the open rolling  North Hampshire downs, is turning to grass and livestock, sheep for now, cattle later, to improve the depth and nutrient content of his ground. Very alkaline chalky soils are locking up valuable nutrients the arable crops cannot access, leading to declining yields.

Phosphate and Potash indices are respectable, but the results of more detailed Albrecht and Reams soil tests show most of this is locked up and not available for plant growth.

Herbal leys
This year 370ha of herbal leys have been established in blocks across the estate – with mixtures that include ryegrasses, festuloliums, timothy, cocksfoot, chicory, sainfoin, yarrow, burnet, plantain and a selection of white and red clovers. These will be down for four years before the fields go back into a rape, barley, rape, barley under-sown with grass, rotation.

Tim compares the roots of Puna II chicory with other chicory species in the mix

Tim compares the roots of Puna II chicory with other chicory species in the mix

33.5km of three strand, high tensile electric fencing has been put in at a cost of 50p/m installed. It is still early days – but the aim is for the sheep to move to a new paddock every four days – leaving a residual that has maximised sheep intakes, but will encourage fast recovery of the pastures.

Above-ground water pipes with easy-to-fit connectors run out to home-made water troughs made from old tractor tyres, with a steel plate bolted to the bottom and a chain, so they can be easily dragged by a bike from paddock to paddock – an idea Tim saw on YouTube.

Cheap and functional home-made mobile water trough

Cheap and functional home-made mobile water trough

Grazed-grass only enterprise
1600 sheep, mule ewes and lambs are now tucking into the highly productive pastures – which have grown exceptionally well in the warm summer and open autumn – so much so there are fears the ewes may be too fit for tupping in early December. They will lamb outdoors in April/May and receive no feed apart from grazed grass.

Sheep enjoying the herbal leys in the late autumn sunshine

Sheep enjoying the herbal leys in the late autumn sunshine

The lambs are also to be finished purely off grazed grass – the first lot went last week, and the rest will be marketed over the winter and early spring.

The sheep enterprise will be run on a low cost system – set up to run with ‘a dog and a quad bike’. The chicory which has natural anthelmintic properties, and other beneficial plants in the ley mix, will reduce the reliance on vet and meds.

“The motivation for taking such drastic action is to get the soils right,” said Tim. “By growing grasses, legumes and deep rooting herbs we can increase soil structure, chemistry and biology.

“And we need the animals to eat the grass, and trample some of it into the soil to increase the organic matter content and encourage the worms, while adding their manure.”

There are so many wins with this new system – not least low cost quality lamb production, with vastly improved soils that will produce more grain with fewer inputs.

Tim is a brave man – but walking around the fields yesterday, even at this early stage, it just seems to make so much sense.

Tim talks about establishing the new grass leys with members of the PFLA and others

Tim talks about establishing the new grass leys with members of the PFLA and others

Tim’s Nuffield
Tim’s report – Understanding and implementing sustainability – is exceptional and can be accessed through www.nuffieldinternational.org/reports under the scholarship year 2011.

The changes he has made are as a direct result of his travels – which he said gave him the strength to make the changes needed.

He is also recognises the influence of fellow scholar Tom Chapman – whose study – Are mob grazed cattle the perfect arable break? is also available on the Nuffield International website.

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