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Advice to livestock farmers following hottest June

Meet the Network

Despite recent rainfall, the hottest June on record will have affected pasture biomass, warns Janet Montgomery of Barenbrug, a leading grass breeder.

“Although pastures are in a better position than this time last year, it’s important to remember that while the dryness won’t affect the growth stage of grass, it will have an impact on the amount of biomass produced per unit area of pasture,” she says.

“What’s concerning is that the dry spell came at a time when grass growth is at its highest, because of the long hours of sunlight and high temperatures.

“Both on grazing and forage amounts, this could really catch people out,” she warns, “because pastures haven’t been pumping out the amounts of grass that we’d normally expect.”

Janet Montgomery, Barenbrug
Janet Montgomery, Barenbrug

Advice on stocking levels

To increase pasture resilience Janet offers the following advice.

“On a set-stocking system, reduction in biomass will necessitate a decrease in the stocking rate, while rotational grazers will need to go for a bigger allocation each time.

“That’s especially important for dairy farmers to observe, because both milk quality and output will be affected if steps aren’t taken to manage that drop-off in biomass.”

Sheep and beef farmers, meanwhile, will likely see slower growth rates and a longer time to finishing, Janet suggests.

Pasture preservation during dry conditions

Janet also highlights the importance of pasture preservation during dry conditions to prevent lasting damage: “we need to manage ‘the dry’” she says. Janet gave a number of suggestions to achieve this:

1. Avoid grazing too short: allow sufficient time between grazing and re-grazing to prevent too much damage to the sward.

2. Remove seed heads: while topping might seem counterintuitive in the face of less biomass, taking off seed heads removes stemmy material which makes the pastures more palatable and also encourages the plant to divert energy into vegetative growth.

3. Monitor moisture levels: with consistent periods of dry, a decision-support process will help you to identify the right time to introduce supplementary feeds.

4. Consider changing species: to make pastures and swards more resilient in the face of a drier climate, consider changing species of grass. An autumn overseeding can prove a cost-effective route to help mitigate the effects of future dry periods wher fields are not of an age when they would benefit from a full reseed.

Change grass species to increase pasture resilience

Janet continues: “Consider species that are a little higher in root biomass, such as tall fescue, which will help preserve pastures during dry periods.

“And although cocksfoot and tall fescue have a reputation for being clumpy, coarse and unpalatable, modern varieties make that a largely undeserved reputation. These species are deep-rooting, giving better access to moisture lower down in the soil profile.”

Finally, Janet adds a word of reassurance for farmers concerned about balancing pasture health with livestock welfare. “While pasture health is at greater risk the longer the dry period continues (as grass isn’t able to refill its carbohydrate reserves in time to prevent damage) with time and correct management, it will come back.

“It’s easier to allow plants to recover than to put animals’ welfare at risk.”

More about Barenbrug UK Ltd

Food, Farming and Nature Conservation consensus at Groundswell

Agri-TechE Article

“Producing for food, nature and climate” was the phrase frequently used by Janet Hughes of Defra as she gave a pragmatic presentation to a packed tent at Groundswell 2023. Once a fringe event, the topics discussed at the regenerative agriculture festival have become increasingly mainstream with a greater consensus growing over key issues.

Flex and adapt approach

Janet was keen to reassure farmers, and others in the Big Top, that a less prescriptive approach will be adopted with the new Environment Land Management schemes (ELMs) – offering greater flexibility to pick and mix and to create a tailored scheme that works for the farm.

In particular, she talked about the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, reiterating that this is to continue since its improvement through farmer input, and is now considered efficient. Defra aims to deliver its outcomes through this scheme.

For the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the learning points from over 4000 farm trials are being incorporated to expand the scope. The standards will not be ‘bundled’ as first devised but instead offered as a portfolio for farmers and their advisers to select from.

Janet Hughes, Defra
Janet Hughes, Defra

She says: “We are testing and learning as we go, balancing the need for ‘certainty’ that farmers require for planning with a ‘flex and adapt’ approach to make the schemes good and fit for purpose.” Her vision is to develop a farming system with feedback loops that deliver productivity and prosperity while delivering on food production and the environment.

She reassured the audience that 530 schemes had been accepted for the higher tier Countryside Stewardship and the standard had been good. There are plans to increase access and also to offer a hybrid approach to allow smaller projects within a wider mid tier scheme to be eligible for support under the higher tier.

She also acknowledged that there was a plethora of grants and schemes and Defra is looking at ways to make it easier to find the relevant support and make an application.

Growing consensus

The next session looked at how there is a growing consensus over the direction of travel for farming.

The Food, Farming and Nature Consensus had evolved from discussions at the Oxford Farming Conference, it aims to bring all stakeholders together to find common ground to tackle systemic issues.

All signatories to the pledge agreed upon three shared principles:

  1. A healthy natural environment underpins food security.
  2. Farming has a vital role in producing food but also in tackling the nature, climate and health crises.
  3. Diversity in all its forms will enable resilience and innovation in the face of growing economic and environmental challenges.

Helen Browning, Katie Lo Luxton, Lord Benyon, Stuart Roberts
Helen Browning, Katie-Jo Luxton, Lord Benyon, Daniel Zeichner, Stuart Roberts

After a scene-setting by Katie-Jo Luxton, RSPB Director for Global Conservation, three political figures – Rt Hon Lord Benyon (Con), Daniel Zeichner MP (Lab) and Stuart Roberts (Lib Dem) – gave their views of the way forward. Again, there was a consensus, with the panel reassuring those in the room that whatever the outcome in the general election, the road towards Net Zero will accelerate not deviate.

Measure to manage

Daniel discussed the importance of establishing baselines for measuring progress and to ensure that the community is doing the right things in the best way. He stressed the importance of a Land Use Framework that would build consensus on how land use is optimised.

The panel also discussed the need for trade deals that did not allow UK farmers striving for high standards in animal welfare and environmental stewardship to be undercut by overseas competitors operating in a less regulated landscape.

A number of Agri-TechE members were exhibiting at Groundswell, including:

Rothamsted Research encouraged visitors to test the ‘Cow Burpometer’ to understand more about methane emissions.
On the Barenbrug display plots there was an opportunity to see grass, forage and herbal leys.
NIAB’s trial plots demonstrated a range of novel crops that could support diversification.
Hutchinsons soil pit demonstrated clearly how shallow the top soil is on this part of the farm. Soil and cost mapping provides support for decision-making.
Groundswell 2023