Herbal leys: nature's remedy?

Bringing improvements to liveweight gain and soil health while contributing to reduced production costs, make herbal leys a worthwhile investment. ForFarmers Forage Product Manager Mel Digger explains why she believes all beef and sheep farmers should consider them.

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Mixed herbal leys are growing in popularity with livestock producers and with the wide-ranging benefits they bring to the table, it’s easy to see why, says Mel Digger.

“I am a big advocate of herbal mixes, as long as they are grown for the right reasons. In the short term they can boost production and livestock performance, while also benefiting soil structure and organic matter and contributing to longer term gains.”

From a production point of view herbal mixes increase forage intakes and improve livestock performance. “Legumes in the mixes bring higher protein levels while also reducing the need for inorganic nitrogen fertilisers as they fix nitrogen in the soil, feeding other grasses and herbs in the leys.”

Having a diverse range of species makes the system more resilient and reduces risk, she continues. “This is particularly important with the more extreme weather patterns we are seeing. Herbal leys consistently outperform grass-only swards during periods of drought, staying green and palatable for longer than other forages, because many of the species included are deep rooted.” These deep roots also perform a role in aerating the soil, she adds.

Meanwhile, the combination of deep and shallow rooting species in a mix means that the sward can access nutrients from different parts of the soil profile, making best use of all that is available.

Some herbal species also have anthelmintic properties, helping to reduce the worm burden in livestock, and leading to less reliance on artificial wormers.

Herbal mixture cropped

Herbal mixes are best suited to medium and light soil types with a pH of 5.6 – 7 (depending on species). “They need a fine, firm and level seedbed,” advises Mel. “Sow in the spring or from mid-July through to early September, depending on conditions.

“We advise farmers to broadcast or drill seed at a maximum depth of 1.5cm,” she continues. “Apply fertiliser at a similar rate to conventional grass leys, according to the needs highlighted in your soil analysis.”

Overseeding with herbal species is also a useful option, bringing the benefits of herbs and rejuvenating existing swards, continues Mel. “Anyone wanting to explore how they can bring the benefits of herbs onto their farm should contact their account manager or a member of the forage team to discuss the most suitable options available.”

Sustainable Farming Incentive

The herbal leys scheme within the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) is worth £382 per hectare so is very appealing. However Mel is keen to make sure that farmers don’t misunderstand the requirements.

“Mixes must contain a minimum of five different species – not varieties – of grass along with legumes and herbs to be compliant. This is where people are going to fall down if they don’t take that on board,” says Mel.

It is possible to comply with the scheme by overseeding an existing ley as long as the current ley contains at least five grass species, she explains. “For example you can use a legume and herb overseeding mix to an existing grass sward as long the current ley is compliant.”

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Beef and Sheep Forage Guide

The ForFarmers 2024 Beef and Sheep Forage Guide is packed with insight, advice and the best quality products for your beef or sheep enterprise.

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