How to introduce forage and grassland crops into an arable rotation & the benefits, with top tips from our team of grass experts

Why introduce livestock into arable rotations? How can grass and forage crop help improve soil health and increasing organic matter levels?


Grassland offers many benefits, particularly with multi-species leys - central to this is the root system. We often hear about deep tap roots; these are great for soil structures and lifting nutrients from deeper in the profile but a varied root system of wide, branched, fibrous and deep roots brings the most benefit. It is important to remember that root mass is just as important as root depth.


Extensive root systems help soil stability, drought tolerance and water infiltration, improving the soil structure and allowing more space for air, water and nutrient cycling. Roots exude unique chemicals which help to feed a diverse population of soil microbes which, in turn, further improves nutrient cycling to the plants. Soil stability and soil cover are really important to prevent both erosion and run off. Healthier soils = healthier plants = healthier livestock and a healthier whole farm ecosystem


The inclusion of legumes such as red clover or lucerne are really good for soil structure, with their tap roots, but they also fix atmospheric nitrogen. This reduces the need for artificial application to grassland – really important, given the rising price of nitrogen fertiliser and its significant contributions to farming’s greenhouse gas emissions. More so, it can leave residual nitrogen for subsequent crops in the rotation – some farmers are finding that they can reduce nitrogen inputs by as much as a quarter in a first wheat following grass, while boosting yield by 5 per cent or more. Legume mixes can also reduce the farm’s bought in protein requirement for livestock.

Where there is grass and forage, generally there is livestock and the livestock itself contributes by recycling nutrients back via dung and urine, while any trampled forage breaks down into the soil.


Carbon is one of the key drivers of course and there is a vast amount of research to show that the longer a grass sward is retained the higher the levels of carbon compared to when it was in arable use. Work published by ADAS in 2011 showed a 24% increase in soil organic carbon after 6 years reversion from arable.


Top tips on introducing livestock into an arable farming system and what other forage crops to utilise to help the arable rotation

Firstly, decided on the sward, there are a broad range of species, and it depends on the exact situation, be it beef sheep dairy, silage, grazing etc. White clover is an obvious choice but red clover is an increasingly popular option, as is lucerne. A number of other legumes species are becoming more widely used such as annual clovers like crimson or Persian, Birdsfoot trefoil, sainfoin.  Forage herbs are also gaining momentum, with chicory and plantain the most common but there are others such as caraway, yarrow and salad burnett.


Brassicas are another option. This short term catch crop includes stubble turnips or forage rape. These can be established earlier for summer feed, or later for autumn or winter feed and the more maincrop forages kale. Fodder beet is also seeing increased interest.


If you are renting livestock the best advice is to work with the livestock farmer whose cattle or sheep you are introducing – they will have their preferences and own requirements. You will need to find a solution which fits with your own enterprise while solving the challenge.


Targeted at managers of arable-based systems who are thinking about livestock opportunities for the first time, this AHDB guide includes sections on leys, cover crops, forage crops, maize, outdoor pig production and manures.


Top tips for looking after grassland crops within your arable rotation

The best way to look after grassland is to treat it as a crop, just like a field of wheat. But grassland agronomy does not have to be complicated, certainly compared to wheat!


Firstly, set your objectives for the field in question. Are there any local challenges, for example is it really sandy? Knowing the detail will help whittle down the right selection from the many species and different varieties available to suit.


Soil health is important in grassland – aim for P & K indices at 2 and pH of 6.2 or above especially where legumes are being used. Don’t forget the importance of soil structure too.


Sward management really depends on the species and use. Be kind to the sward in the early months of its life – investing in good establishment will pay back over the lifespan. Simple tips - whether grazing or silaging, don’t let it get too short. Leaving some green material will help the grass to recover more quickly, you don’t really want to go below 4cm/1500kg DM/ha. If you are sowing legume or herb species you would want to increase that height.


Remember to feed the grass relative to crop offtake, one tonne of grass dry matter can remove over 7kg Phosphorus and 27kg Potassium and with Italian ryegrass swards capable of producing over 20t DM/ha as an example that can soon add up! The AHDB Nutrient Management guide Section 3 is a good tool for making a nutrient management plan.


Finally, make sure you regularly monitor your swards, walk them regularly throughout the season so you can see any changes that are happening and address any issues. Obviously keep on top of soil sampling and soil structures. Follow our good grass guide to find out more.


What are the challenges when developing a rotation which contains both arable and grassland/forage crops?

The main challenge is the lack of livestock in arable areas; that makes for a lack of infrastructure to return livestock to farms. Introducing livestock into arable rotations will involve a lot of time, thinking and planning.


Be specific about what problem or problems you are trying to overcome and then very carefully consider how you are going to reintroduce grass and forage. There are an increasing number of young and new entrants with 'flying flocks' who don’t have their own land and are happy to take on short term lets and organisations such as Carbon Dating which can help connect farmers.


There are also opportunities that don’t involve livestock - the many environmental schemes, growing crops for AD plants or to be sold off farm to livestock producers elsewhere. 


But the really great benefit of grass and forage is that there are so many species, and varieties within species that we can utilise there really is a solution for everyone.


What is the research currently being carried out on grass and forage crops, and what new innovations are we likely to see in this sector?

Our work in research and development comes in two forms. Varietal breeding is the most important – we are just as focused on new varieties as cereal breeders, and always striving to develop new varieties that offer improvements in characteristics such as yield, nutritional quality and disease resistance.


Then there is the secondary work – the development of products and species synergy for use on farm, for example developing the most effective and suitable mixtures of various varieties and/or species for specific uses and locations.


Emerging trends to add to key characteristics such as yield and quality is the identification and isolation of traits that we can use to build-in greater tolerance of extreme weather conditions, such as flooding or drought, or forage that offers farmers better nutrient-use efficiency. We are also looking at varieties that provide a broader range of nutritional benefits – higher trace element content, for example – or varieties and species with anti-parasitic properties.


Increasingly we are accounting not only for the ever-changing legislative and support system demands but also the global demand for much more biodiverse and sustainable production.  In our case, that is looking at how we can use grass and forage crops to reduce inputs, food miles, greenhouse gas emissions, while improving carbon capture, protecting soils and promoting healthy and diverse whole farm ecosystems.


It is really satisfying to see that message coming through – our customer base is becoming increasingly diverse. As well as livestock producers and the equestrian market , we are seeing much greater interest from arable growers, vineyards and others who want to ‘invest’ in the power of good grass and grassland, which is great!


Other benefits of grass - Grassland can be used effectively to control grassweed problems such as blackgrass.

Black-grass is the inevitable arable headache! Every farmer knows that there is no single solution and of course blackgrass is a survivalist which can create an awful lot of seeds per plant. But there are two schools of thought to help manage black-grass. One is to sow grass leys at a much higher rate, say 17 – 18kg/acre (42/44kg/ha) and include in the mix a high diploid percentage and perennial species. The higher plant populations will smother the blackgrass and outcompete it.


Alternatively, you can sow a sward but allow the blackgrass to germinate and then cut the sward before the blackgrass sets seed. It is not for the faint-hearted - it requires attention to detail, frequent monitoring of the field and frequent cutting. A single cut in June for hay is definitely NOT the system we would be looking at here. It is worth looking at some work presented by AHDB, who showed that done well, this approach can reduce seed burdens by up to 90% over a few years – but we would recommend using this approach for 3 – 4 years to be most beneficial.