Pioneering Norfolk farm trial to explore the benefits of grazing sheep in arable rotations
Archant Norfolk 2018
A pioneering trial is about to start in Norfolk to explore whether grazing sheep within crop rotations could bring mutual financial benefits to both arable and livestock farmers. CHRIS HILL reports.
In a post-Brexit world of diminishing subsidies and heightened environmental scrutiny, all farmers will need to become more profitable and conscientious at the same time.
So is there a way to improve soil health and crop performance in a natural system which brings financial benefits for both arable and livestock farmers?
That is the question being asked in a Norfolk trial which brings together a pioneering partnership of farmers, agronomists and agri-business specialists – and a rare collaboration across agricultural sectors.
The trial is being hosted by Honingham Thorpe Farms using sheep supplied by EM and JF Peacock near Wymondham, with other partners including the National Sheep Association, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, the Organic Research Centre, Frontier Agriculture and Brown and Co.
It will weigh up factors including the cost of establishing grass leys and stocking the land, including water, fencing, and handling equipment, and the effects the animals have on the structure, organic matter and microbial activity in the soil – which could benefit the following crop.
And the livestock sector can assess which herbage mixture gives best liveweight gain, which grazing systems give optimum performance, and the benefits of clean grazing with a lower worm and parasite risk.
While all the partners are keen to explore the ecological benefits, the key driver is to assess the financial viability of this mixed farming system.
Farm manager Jamie Lockhart said: “I would not be doing this unless I was convinced we will see a positive gross margin return over the whole rotation.
“From an arable farmer’s point of view we had a problem on this field in terms of our soil condition, with yields going the wrong way. So we are looking for a problem-solving solution.
“There are so many benefits to this system, you could almost call it a ‘public good’. But we have deliberately focused on the numbers in commercial terms because it has to stack up from a financial point of view.
“People talk about all these policies that are good for the birds and the bees, but what we are trying to do is prove this is beneficial to the bottom line and, as an aside, it is pretty good for the environment too. That is where the emphasis needs to change.
“Arable soils in general have been deprived of organic matter over the last 20-30 years and this is a real chance for us to see how quickly that damage can be repaired.
“What the livestock farmer wants is the security to know he has good ground to graze on if he wants to invest in a couple of thousand ewes. We want to go to someone like that and say: ‘We see this rotation working’, and that will give him confidence to go out and buy animals. He will know it is as important to us as it is to him.”
After wet weather delayed the establishment of the trial field at Honingham Thorpe, the first lambs are due to arrive next month.
Andrew Melton, Frontier’s regional agronomy manager, said: “It will be interesting to see if the seed mixtures are right and it is a unique opportunity to get this group of people around the table.
“We will do a general soil health sweep looking at the nutrients, organic matter, biodiversity and microbial activity. If the soil is healthier it is more resilient, it will hold its moisture better and allow you to get on there earlier during a wet period. There are so many benefits that this gives us the opportunity to look at.
“Over the last few years people have been looking at their gross margin on single crops but we think you should look at the rotation as a whole to judge if it is sustainable financially and gives good control of weeds, pests and diseases.”
Simon Wearmouth, a partner in the agricultural business consultancy in the Norwich office of Brown and Co, said: “We thought there might be more ruminants in this part of the world in the future, so we wanted to try to demonstrate the benefits of a possible return to mixed farming in terms of soil health and organic matter.
“We want to demonstrate the output to the arable farmer, but also the financial benefit to the livestock farmer.
“We are in limbo at the moment, as we don’t know where the market for them will be. It is all down to the trade deals after Brexit as to whether there will be any sheep left at all. But the benefits of bringing these ruminants in, whether it is sheep, beef or deer, is something we want to explore.”
ABOUT THE TRIAL:
The 12ha trial field at Honingham Thorpe Farms, outside Norwich, will be divided in two halves – one being a diverse herbal ley, and the other sown with a traditional rye grass and clover mix.
There will be 50-60 ewes with lambs on each half supplied by Jack Peacock, whose animals have already grazed stubble turnips and cover crops on the farm.
Farm manager Jamie Lockhart said: “We deliberately picked a field where we have some fertility issues. The idea is that it will be a two-year ley, possibly a third year depending on how the grass is doing.
“The results will come down to sampling the field for soil results and organic matter. But we will know whether it has been successful or not the day we dig a spade into the ground. I am not expecting 2t/ha yield increase in the first year, but we will know immediately if the soil structure is better.”
This project is funded by the National Sheep Association, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and the Organic Research Centre, in partnership with Honingham Thorpe Farms, Frontier Agriculture, and Brown and Co. It also received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
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