BFA winners improve soil health after turning to multi-species

Monday 11.12.2023 , News

Farming near LLangrannog in Ceredigion with daughter Bella, Welsh farmer Chris Mossman has endured multiple TB breakdowns since 2016.

Now using multi-species swards, the pair have noted improved herd health, soil health, and production while reducing artificial nitrogen usage.

Their success has been recognised, with the pair winning the Grassland Farmer of the Year category at the 2023 British Farming Awards.

Farm Facts: Nant-y-Bach Farm, Ceredigion

  • 202 hectares (500 acres)
  • 320 Jersey-Holstein/Friesian crossbred cows
  • Spring block calving
  • Grazing February – December
  • Arla supplier
  • Average yield 6,000 litres, 4,645 milk from forage in 2022
  • 4.8% butterfats and 3.8% protein
  • 517 kg milk solids/cow
  • Thin, free-draining soils
  • Minimum tillage system using contractors to drill

For many years, Chris farmed profitably at Nant-y-Bach Farm by running a traditional farming system. Actively involved in a local discussion group, he worked hard to achieve the norm: three cows per hectare, breeding replacements, an intensive three weeks of spring block calving and grazing from February to December.

In 2008, he started expanding the herd, reaching the targets he set for stock numbers and yields eight years later. Just as he had achieved all he set out to do, he had his first TB breakdown. Since then, recurring outbreaks both of TB and, in 2018, Pica.

“It was devastating,” says Chris. “We’ve lost so many animals to TB. Then when Pica hit us as well and the cows were eating stones rather than grass, I desperately needed to do something and find out why this was happening.”

Pica is thought to be caused by a phosphorus deficiency, usually due to a poor P index in the soil. However, when Chris tested his soil, the phosphorus levels were normal.

“It got me thinking – is the plant not taking up the phosphorus? It was the trigger for me to begin investigating soil and plant health, and really understand what was happening on my farm.”

Soil health the way forward

Chris began attending events and reading articles to learn more about his grassland’s potential. He credits two speakers, Joel Williams and Dr Christine Jones, both plant and soil health experts from Australia, with having a big impact on how he farms. Their research and advocacy for improving soils have changed Chris’s perception of traditional farming.

“I’ve now realised the damage we’ve done to our soils over the years, with fertilisers and monocropping. Even though we thought it was for the best at the time. There has been an impact too on the wider environment, and as a result, consumer trust.”

Learning about nitrogen use provided Chris with the opportunity to change. “According to the experts, there were two main ways to reduce nitrogen use on-farm. One, use diverse swards and two, reduce the amount of fertiliser used gradually. This is exactly what we’ve done.”

Diverse swards

The first 11 hectares (28 acres) of multi-species swards were sown in 2018. Since then, all reseeds (about 12 hectares, or 30 acres, per year) have been diverse swards. There is still a mixture of leys on the farm, but Chris plans to be fully multi-species eventually.

He uses both grazing and cutting mixtures – his silage going to dry cows and for buffer feeding in dry weather. The grass is measured every week to determine how much surplus there is to cut and bale.

BFA winners improve soil health after turning to multi-species

“We’ve experimented with different varieties and mixtures to see what suits our conditions. In our experience, plantain has been a far more persistent herb than chicory, and spreads well.”

Chris now prefers to use Germinal mixtures as they are performing best on the farm. “The Germinal seeds are developed and tested just up the road in Aberystwyth – so it makes sense that what works there would work here.

“We’re happy with the results we are seeing, and research is coming out now to back up our experiences. Multi-species swards can provide more DM per tonne than perennial ryegrass alone. The multi-species swards also did better in last year’s [2022’s] drought.”

Reducing nitrogen with multi-species

Unwilling to go down the organic route, Chris made a nitrogen reduction plan for the farm. “I want to keep things flexible,” he explains. “TB affects our herd numbers, and the weather is unpredictable, so we need the ability to be responsive; it’s harder if you’re organic.

“Research shows high amounts of added nitrogen deplete diversity in the soil and counter the benefits of legumes. So, it’s a waste of money on multi-species and throws the soil microbiome out of kilter.”

Chris had traditionally used around 300 kg/ha of nitrogen and has slowly reduced this amount each year. In 2022, he used 126 kg/ha and his eventual target is 50 kg/ha. He doesn’t use any nitrogen on his multi-species swards.

“We’re also trialling foliar application, using nitrogen coated with a carbon source. The theory is it will be better for the soil, and hope, this year [2023], to use only foliar applications on the main farm block.”

BFA winners improve soil health after turning to multi-species

Confident about the future

Chris holds nothing back when he describes how hard the disease outbreaks and their impact have been over the past seven years. But he is also confident there is a silver lining – a financially and environmentally resilient farm.

“I know I wouldn’t have changed if we hadn’t suffered TB or Pica, but I feel like I’m slightly ahead of the game now. We had already reduced our nitrogen use before costs skyrocketed – now it’s what everyone is talking about.

“Multi-species as a high-value source of dry matter and protein is backed by solid research now – it is the future for maximising grassland potential and we’re already doing it.

“When TB first hit us, I didn’t know what the future held. But now I can see the future – a system based on multi-species swards.

“We’re about to invest in renewables and my youngest daughter has joined the business. With her on board, full of ideas about diversification, I know we’ll be farming the land here for generations to come.”

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