Wiltshire beef and sheep producer Chris Blunt believes herbal and multi-species leys could fully replace traditional grassland at his Downlands Church Farm, near Warminster, within the next five years.

Their overall performance including producing high levels of forage in often challenging conditions at the same time as reducing input costs has been hugely impressive, he says.

“When we have a ley that we’ve shown can reliably produce 12 - 15t/ha dry matter in a far from perfect growing season and that we haven’t had to put any bagged nitrogen on, only sulphur, P and K, then that is a real step forward.

South West Farmer:

“The herbal mix developed for us produced so much forage last year that we almost didn’t know what to do with it all.”

Chris runs a mixed operation running 200ha of arable production alongside an extensive lambing/sheep enterprise based on an outdoor lambing flock of 900 ewes and a store cattle operation that finishes up to 200 head a year.

“Our focus is on producing as much forage dry matter as possible from the land we have and then working out how many kgs of beef or lamb we can produce from this.

“We produce about 10t/ha of wheat and about 7.5t/ha of spring barley in the arable enterprise, so the moment you start taking good arable land out to produce beef, you have to think about it very carefully.

South West Farmer:

“Fodder beet has helped us achieve a turnover of around £2000 - 2500/ha for overwintering the cattle at current beef prices.

“When you consider our turnover from an 11t/ha crop of first winter wheat is £1500 to £1600 and with a lot more cost involved, then that’s not bad going.”

The use of herbal and multi-species leys aligns with this thinking with the mixes’ ability to produce high volumes of forage with minimal inputs truly impressive, Chris says.

“In recent years we’ve been looking at clover-based mixes with Horizon Seeds and they have developed a white clover and IRG mix for us, plus a red clover-based multi-species ley containing lots of things including plantain, timothy and chicory.

South West Farmer:

“In the most challenging of years, our plate meter has shown we grow as much forage from these leys as anything else we’ve tried and that means we’re saving around £80/ha on N fertiliser compared to grassland.

“Plus under the GS4 option of the Environmental Stewardship Scheme, we get over £300/ha straight away for just growing them. With the 10ha we initially put in, we received over £3000 of income before it had got anywhere near an animal.”

“This year, we’ve increased that to around 30 to 40ha.

"It seems there are few downsides - we get shed loads of forage and it’s cheaper to grow – and I honestly think this is the direction we are all going to be encouraged to go in the future.”

Chris admits he was a bit worried at first because of red clover’s reputation as being difficult to manage, but the inclusion of it in the mixes seems to get around that.

“Horizon are already using a variety of red clover that will last for five years and it wouldn’t surprise me with the way things are moving in terms of plant breeding if you were here in three to four years we would be pretty much all multi-species leys.”