Grass and herbal leys: a strategic, sustainable choice for UK farmers

At Barenbrug, we’ve one simple goal: to help all farmers make the most of grass, forage & herbal leys – and that applies across the board, whether you’re producing milk, raising livestock or growing essential crops.


Grass’ primary value will always be as a fantastic feedstuff in truly sustainable livestock production, but now that we’re realising and quantifying its myriad benefits – soil health and conservation, carbon storage, nutrient management and more – it’s increasingly seen as of critical important to farming enterprises of all flavours.


Take the herbal ley, for example. Becoming something of a buzz word in many farming circles this year, we firmly believe it has a home in every farming system. Visitors to Groundswell, the regenerative agriculture event, were met with trial plots from many exhibitors, including Barenbrug. As one of the show’s sponsors, we ourselves seized the opportunity to demonstrate the intrinsic value of the herbal ley. Business development manager Roger Bacon explains.


“This complex seed mixture of grass, legumes and herbs has been a long-established practice in organic systems, but it’s now begun to attract attention within conventional circles.


“Whether you’re growing crops, producing milk or fattening lambs and cattle, herbal leys bring significant benefits such as drought resistance, better soil health and improvements in soil structure.”


Research shows that they can reduce the requirements for artificial nitrogen fertiliser, while boosting levels of the essential major and trace elements needed for good crop and animal health.


Grassland of any sort also sequesters carbon, more reliably and more safely than forests. Studies reveal that the stocks of carbon in grassland, located in roots and soil, are 150% greater than those of forests. Interestingly, evidence suggests that this storage capacity may increase further as global warming brings higher temperatures, and carbon dioxide concentrations increase.


But it doesn’t stop there. Soil carbon is directly linked to soil organic matter. Farming systems with higher soil carbon levels can not only grow healthier crops, but also increase the biodiversity of soil ecosystems – in turn improving the diversity above ground. And the ability of grassland, and soil with high organic matter, to improve water-holding capacity – thus reducing flood risk – is now more widely understood.


“With all these benefits, it seems increasingly likely that grassland of any sort, but especially ‘active’ forms such as herbal leys, will be seen as a ‘public good’ thanks to their effects on the soil, ability to sequester carbon, and their value for biodiversity,” says Roger.


The rise of the herbal ley has also led to more and more farmers rediscovering the value of diverse, mixed farming systems that include both livestock and arable elements.


“Growers are reporting yield lifts of more than 5% when cereals follow a herbal ley, despite being able to cut nitrogen inputs by nearly a quarter in some cases,” points out Mhairi Dawson, Barenbrug’s R&D manager.


“That’s on top of more basic agronomic benefits from bringing back grass into the rotation, such as being able to get on top of problem weeds like black-grass,” she adds. “AHDB work showed that planting a sward, allowing black-grass to germinate and then cutting it before the seed sets, could reduce seed burdens by up to 90% over a couple of years.”


There are also opportunities that don’t involve livestock, useful for those in areas of the country where livestock is less common. “There are many environmental schemes that favour the planting of grass, for example, as well as energy crops or selling harvested grass off-farm to remote livestock producers.


“The great benefit of grass and forage is that there are so many species, and varieties within species, that means there really is a solution for everyone.”


Barenbrug’s UK-focused grass breeding programme allows us to provide the UK’s farmers with not only the genetics but also much-needed advice and insight that can bring the value of grass to every farm.


Farmers Weekly Transition Partner