“One of the key goals of government support policy in the UK is to try and reduce run off from fields by avoiding bare soils,” she explains. “Farmers are keen to avoid run off, not only because of the environmental damage it can do to our rivers and streams, but because of the loss it represents to their businesses. Loss of soil means loss of nutrients, which farmers have invested in, and which will not be available to subsequent crops.”
Livestock producers are increasingly turning to cover crops as green fertilisers, but they can also give forage stocks a well needed boost this winter, she continues. “There are cover crop options for most scenarios but always make sure that you are utilising the right crop for your overall forage plan and don’t take land out of production at key times.
“After wheat think about a crop of Italian ryegrass that, if conditions allow, might provide a grazing or silage crop in the autumn, but will certainly give you an early grazing or silage crop before you plant maize in the spring. Undersowing maize or after harvest with grass keeps the nutrients in the soil and can provide a cut or grazing for stock in the spring. Sowing forage rye after maize harvesting can provide early grazing for cows, reducing the cost of winter feeding.
“If you’re looking to put a cover crop in earlier, after a cereal crop, think about lucerne or clover. They both do well in dry conditions and clover brings its nitrogen fixing benefits,” says Mel.
As well as forage value many of these crops have root structures that benefit the soil, opening it up to allow air in and holding moisture in the ground. Crops like fodder radish and herbs , with their deep tap roots, are great at breaking up hard soils and bringing up nutrients from lower down in the soil. Some cover crops can be used for autumn grazing cattle, lambs and flushing ewes.
“When using a herbal ley you can see the benefits of having diversity in your sward, “ says Mel. “The mix of grasses, legumes and herbs mean you can have it all - sward performance, nitrogen fixing benefits, drought tolerance and benefits to soil structure.”
The management of muti species is important to guarantee performance and persistency across the different species, she warns. Each species won’t perform in the same way across the season and from year to year, as they all have a different competitive ability. “Grasses are often quick and easy to establish. White and red clover are less competitive at establishment but increasingly competitive during the first year. After that, red clover’s competitive ability decreases whereas white clover’s increases. You’ll also see they perform better during drier spells,” adds Mel.
Plantain and chicory are the most common herbs used as they cope well in a competitive sward and across a range of soil types. Chicory can be expected to last two years in the sward whereas plantain persists for three to four years.
“When grazing or silaging multi species don’t cut or graze too low. The lower you go the longer the sward will take to recover,” stresses Mel.
Soil sampling is the crucial piece of the jigsaw when it comes to getting the best from your soils, she advises. “The results will allow you to plan the most efficient and cost-effective fertiliser policy across the year.
“We are also seeing an increase in farmers doing slurry testing as we begin to value and fully understand the nutritional asset it can be to the farm. Knowing the nutrient value of your slurry means you can adapt your fertiliser requirements around what you have on farm,” says Mel.
As well as the environmental and biodiversity benefits that cover crops and multi species leys offer, they can provide additional opportunities to improve soil quality and structure, additional forage and reduce the need for inputs, concludes Mel. “Talk to your ForFarmers account manager about what opportunities there might be for your farm.”