The challenges of farming within extreme weather conditions was the main topic discusses at a virtual event, the first in a series to be hosted by the knowledge exchange network, Agricology.
Livestock are important in building soil resilience, which is so important when coping with weather extremes.
This was the message from Ian Wilkinson, managing director of Cotswold Seeds and founder of FarmED, a centre for farm and food education at Honeydale Farm in the Cotswolds. He said for his farming business, soils and their resilience had been pivotal in coping with the recent wet winter, and what looked like being a dry spring.
He explained the 43-hectare (107-acre) Honeydale Farm had previously been in continuous spring cereals, but since 2013 the focus had been building soil fertility, and to aid this livestock had been introduced into the arable rotation.
He said: “The best way to build soil fertility is through the use of livestock, and that is why sheep are so important to what we are doing here.”
The sheep, owned by a local farmer’s son, are rotated around the grazing leys within the arable crop rotation.
He explained: “There are 100 ewes on-farm at any one time. The group is moved every 24 hours between the quarter acre blocks, and they go around the rotation every 40-50 days.
“We have a defoliation policy of ‘graze half, and leave half’. Through this we are getting a huge amount of biodiversity into the soils, getting production from the sheep, and building soil fertility.
“Livestock might be considered a by-product in these situations, but they should also be viewed as a cash crop.”
Sheep are also outwintered on the system, but Mr Wilkinson explained it was important not to be left with bare soils.
“We do not want to be feeding hay either. The sheep farmer will move the sheep onto other land if we need him to.”
Mr Wilkinson added Honeydale Farm had 100 per cent green cover ‘pretty much all year round’.
He said: “For example we are growing white clover, with cereal direct drilled into it. This is the sort of work we are trying to develop to get continuous green cover. But to get it right we need to get the timings right.”
Mr Wilkinson added that this sort of ‘regenerative agriculture’ was becoming more prevalent on UK farms.
He added the use of low levels of livestock moving around large areas of arable land was the future.
“We are seeing big problems with wet winters and dry springs. We have to get resilient systems in place.”
The mixed farming enterprise at Daylesford Organic is focused on creating a resilient and sustainable way of producing food.
As an example of this, Richard Smith, senior farms manager at Daylesford Farm, and its sister estate in Staffordshire, described the agroforestry work being done within the poultry side of the business.
Mr Smith explained that across the two sites the business had a flock of 6,500 laying hens accommodated in 12 mobile houses at Daylesford and 14 mobile houses in Staffordshire. The birds go into the houses as 15-week-old pullets. They will start laying at about 21 weeks, and will stay in the houses until week 75.
About 800 fruit trees have been planted in rows along the lengths of half of the hen fields. Alongside these are rows of native alder trees, which act as a windbreak for the fruit trees, and also offer shelter for the hens and provide woodchip to be used as fuel in a biomass boiler.
Mr Smith said the trees offered the hens extra cover and helped to encourage them to roam further around their fields.
“The trees help encourage foraging, grazing and ranging behaviour.”
He added: “We put woodchip down around the houses which acts as a ‘doormat’ for the birds. The hens enjoy scratching around in it, and it also means they do not take too much mud back into the houses.”
Once the hens leave the house it is moved, and the area is then ploughed ready for a brassica crop to be put in.
In light of the situation with Covid-19, Agricology will be holding number of digital events. Katie Bliss, knowledge exchange manager at the company, said: “As events across the country are cancelled and postponed, Agricology will work with our partners to take farm walks, shows, conferences and meetings into the digital world.
“This will include a series of ‘virtual field days’ focused on different practices and themes over the coming months.”
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