Grassland was the main discussion topic at the recent Peebles monitor farm meeting, hosted by Ed and Kate Rowell, who farm Hundleshope, just south of Peebles. This 1,800 acre (729 ha) unit is one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland.
The majority of the Hundleshope land, 1,450 acres, is hill, peaking at 2,200 feet. The hill ground is home to a flock of 364 Scottish Blackfaces which produced just over 400 lambs this year – the best hill lambing the Rowells can remember.
The lower ground supports a suckler herd of 70 females, with progeny, other than replacements, sold at a year old. There is also a flock of 450 Scotch Mules and Texel crosses, with all lambs, less retained ewe lambs, finished. In addition there are 170 hoggs.
Spring barley is grown on approximately 30 acres, with all grain and straw used on farm.
Grassland improvement on their lower ground is one of the projects the Rowells have asked the monitor farm community group to address during their three-year monitor farm term.
Early progress has been made. In 2013 some first-cut Hundleshope silage, made from one year old Italian Ryegrass, destined to be fed to in-lamb ewes in the weeks leading up to lambing, won second prize in both the AgriScot and Scottish Winter Fair silage competitions.
At the recent monitor farm meeting, Welsh grassland specialist Charlie Morgan told the group: “When aiming to improve grass on your farm, it’s worth concentrating your money and time investments on the areas of better land which will give the greatest return.
“The soil is the most important thing on your farm. Get it tested to establish pH levels which should be a minimum of six.”
Monitor farm facilitator Chris McDonald of SAC Consulting commented: “Ensuring the pH is kept at this level is important and regular soil testing every four to five years will ensure pH levels can be monitored and maintained.”
Mr Morgan added: “If the pH is really low, resist the temptation of applying more than two tons of lime per acre. If you exceed this, you run the risk of making your ground hard and creating ‘hot spots’ of above pH 6.5 which is detrimental to grass yields.”
Mr Morgan emphasised that before spending money on grassland improvement, it is important to establish what is happening beneath the surface.
“Take a spade and dig some holes in a variety of locations in the field to assess root structure of the current grass plants and the health of the soil.
“Grass roots need to reach down through the soil to unlock the soil’s natural reserves of phosphate and nitrogen. The roots also need oxygen. Soil compaction restricts both root depth and oxygen. It also negates the benefits of lime and fertiliser applications.
“Often livestock farmers aren’t aware that their stock can create soil compaction whereas, in fact, sheep often compact the top layer of the soil with cattle capable of creating deeper compaction problems.
“So look at the roots of the current grasses. If they’re running horizontally in the top layer of the soil, they’re clearly unable to grow down and won’t be accessing the soil’s natural nutrients and trace elements.”
Mr Morgan dug holes in a number of the Rowell’s fields revealing some shallow as well as deeper soil compaction. The best soil structure found during the hole digging exercise was in an area of old hill ground which has only ever grazed sheep and is rarely travelled over by wheels.
Mr Morgan explained that the presence of earthworms suggest a healthy soil. More hole digging revealed Leatherjackets, the grass root eating grubs of craneflies, alerting the Rowells to their presence.
“If grassland soil is compacted, the problem must be resolved,” urged Mr Morgan. “The soil needs to be aerated - shaken up below the surface while not disturbing the grazing - with something like a sward aerator or grassland sub-soiler. On most sheep and cattle farms, approximately the top four inches of the soil needs to be aerated to sort out compaction issues.
“The ideal time to do this autumn. You need to achieve penetration of the soil below the deepest compaction zone. The speed of the operation is important to avoid too much surface damage. Speedy spring time operations can flick the soil up and pose a health risk if the ridges aren’t flattened by pre-silage rolling, possibly resulting in listeriosis in feeding livestock.
“When using a grassland sub-soiler, it’s important to avoid creating rows of set hard, soil ridges. You’ll struggle to get rid of them and they will be no fun to drive over while silaging.”
When ploughing is required to establish a pioneer crop or a full re-seed, Mr Morgan recommended ploughing no deeper than six inches to avoid burying the organic matter in the soil’s top layer and bringing up the subsoil.
The next Peebles monitor farm meeting will be an open day at the end of August. The Peebles monitor farm is half way through its three year term and the developments over the last 18 months will be reviewed.
For further information, please contact either of the Joint Facilitators:
Jennifer Brown. Tel: 01835 823322. Email: email@example.com or
Chris McDonald. Tel: 0131 535 3426. Email: Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org
For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, please visit: www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms
Caption: Charlie Morgan, Grassland Specialist digging a hole to assess soil quality in a Hundleshope field which had been sub-soiled.