I usually visit many farms each year – to talk to and write about inspiring and innovative grassland farmers.
Not so in 2020.
I popped down to Cornwall and Devon early in January to do an article on alternative forage crops, and in February met a Dorset dairy farmer doing wonderful things with multi-species leys. And then that was it as first lockdown hit.
Any research after that was only by telephone and the farmers had to supply their own photos!
I was back on the road in summer and visited two brilliant farms – socially distanced and no hand-shakes. One a family farm, again in Dorset with both dairy cow and dairy goat herds, the other a young 25-year-old farmer in Staffordshire, quickly scaling the grassland farming ladder.
The Ford family
For the first time in 26 years, the combine harvester stayed in the barn on Islington Farm, near Dorchester this year, as the Ford family focusses on the production of high quality forages to feed the farm’s 300 dairy cows and 2,400 dairy goats.
Going organic is driving this change. As there will not be any combinable wheat or maize grown from now on, the Fords are planting a lot of different forage crops.
“We have tried six hectares of lucerne this year, as well as some red clover/grass silage leys,” explained Lee Ford. “We have also put in a 106ha of an oat, barley and vetch mixture for wholecrop silage and this autumn will sow 97ha of a grass seed.
“We liked the idea of lucerne because of its drought tolerance. Also as a legume it has an ability to grow well without any artificial inputs. It only received 16 cubic metres/ha of dirty water. In August – it was the only green field around!”
“It will be down for three or four years, and as a legume is helping improve soil health. It has taken the place of maize and costs significantly less to grow. We shall be growing 20ha more next year.
“We are really taking a leap of faith with all these legumes – the lucerne, red and white clover and vetches. We need to make at least 4,500 tonnes of silage to feed the cattle and the goats all year around, without the use of artificial fertilisers.
“The move to organic is certainly changing what we are doing and making for exciting times – and even at this early stage the signs are looking good, said Lee.
Twenty-five-year-old George Thompson is making rapid progress up the farming ladder after starting six years ago with just four sheep at Bellhouse Farm in Anslow, Burton-on-Trent.
A new entrant into farming, George and his partner Lydia, now manage 142ha of which 12ha are owned. They run 250 head of mixed age beef cattle and 800 sheep – alongside a popular tearoom, farm shop and children’s farm.
With predominately clay loam soils, some of the fields can lie wet after high rainfall and are difficult to work. George is keen to improve swards by reseeding with minimal soil disturbance to build soil organic matter. Ploughing also costs too much money, brings up undesirable dock and thistle seeds and disturbs the fauna and flora living within the s
This year, George has tried different methods of improving swards, including direct drilling a westerwolds/IRG mix into an older ley. This established quickly and eight weeks later a silage cut was taken and the pasture grazed thereafter.
The second way George upgraded some of the pastures was to treat the sward with a broad-spectrum herbicide before drilling with Autumn Feed from Oliver Seeds – a mixture of catch crop brassicas including kale, forage rape and stubble turnips.
This provided high quality forage for the ewes before tupping and acted as clean break between grass crops. After the Autumn Feed, George will drill Broadsword Hi-Pro, a mixture of hybrid ryegrasses, festulolium, white and red clover with added chicory chosen for its deep rooting.
For the past five years, 5ha of maize has been grown for silage, but George is now looking for different, more soil-friendly forage options. For the first time this year he has sown oats and peas to harvest for wholecrop, undersowing with Broadsword Hi-Pro for cutting and grazing.
“We are finding ways to improve the quality of our pastures in a sustainable way which is adding to soil health,” says George. “In future we may look to have less sheep as they tend to graze it too short, and have more cattle – maybe even dairy cattle!”
Visits in 2021
Sitting here in January – it seems unlikely I will be on the road visiting farms until March at the earliest.
But rest assured, as soon as I can, I will be! There are so many other fantastic grassland farmers, like the Fords and George with great stories to tell. There are now many farmers trying new and different ways to bring grass, pastures and grazing into their systems. Grass is good. Grass is definitely the future!
PS Longer articles about the Fords and George Thompson can be found in the November 2020 issue of British Dairying and October 2020 issue of Midland Farmer.