Forage Crops Case Study

The Albynes, Shropshire

“By selecting appropriate crops and livestock, the sheep essentially manage the crops themselves"
                                                                                        - Hayden Wooley, farmer

 

Many arable farmers are beginning to explore the integration of livestock into their operations and how it can enhance sustainability, improve soil health and boost biodiversity. Hayden Woolley, of The Albynes in Shropshire, has worked with Kings Crops technical advisor, Will Pratt and BCW Agriculture agronomist, Nick Jones, to get the best out of a dual-farming approach.

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 Self-shedding ewes

 

Improvements in soil health, live weight gain and crop performance have been reported at Hayden’s farm, Hayden Woolley and Anna Ramsey of Kings Crops
following work to introduce livestock into the arable rotation. 

The farming operation extends to over 1,700 acres, with over 200 of that allocated to arable land. The livestock focus has traditionally been sheep farming, but combinable crops have also been an important feature.

Over time, Hayden found that the arable land was becoming increasingly difficult to farm due to the practical challenges of managing weeds and maintaining soil health. Of particular concern was the amount of black-grass, with traditional approaches for weed control proving both costly and less effective as time went on.

Keen to look at other options, Hayden turned to his sheep and began to assess how their inclusion amongst his arable rotation could contribute positively.

 

Livestock selection

With a flock headcount of 4,000 ewes, integrating such high numbers into an arable rotation presented a big challenge. But, with 3,000 of the flock self-shedding their fleeces and thereby removing the need for shearing and fly control, the practicalities became less daunting.

Hayden explains: “Like many farms, we often face a shortage of staff. This made managing the labour-intensive tasks associated with sheep, such a shearing and clipping, quite challenging.”

“However, by transitioning to a wool-less sheep breed, we’ve managed to reduce our management input significantly, by approximately 70-80%.

“This reduction in labour requirements is something I believe could fundamentally change the use of sheep in arable systems, mainly due to the drastically reduced need for skilled labour.”

Hayden went on to partner with with Ian McDougall who leads Farmgene, a company specialising in advance sheep reproductive technologies, and together they founded Low Footprint Lamb UK. This initiative is focused on testing sheep genetics from around the world to identify those which are environmentally suitable for UK farming conditions.

Hayden adds: “Our objective is to breed three wool-less sheep types that complement each other.

“We started by identifying genetics to enhance outdoor lambing maternal ewes. Next, we developed terminal rams, known for their rapid growth and improved carcasses, to complement the maternal line.

“Additionally, we’ve embarked on our most ambitious project yet: breeding ewes that lamb outdoors in autumn, which aligns with the demand of arable cover crop farming and associated labour availability.”

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Herbal leys

With the wool-less sheep breeds proving a viable livestock option for the arable rotation, attention turned to suitable options of cover crops, grasses and herbal leys.

Will explains: “Our goal was to identify a solution that not only enhances soil quality but also yields financial returns and overall benefits to Hayden’s business, so we evaluated the viability of legume fallows and herbal leys.”

Will Pratt and Hayden WoolleyWill noted though that while legume fallows offer higher payment rates, their use is limited as they can’t be grazed or harvested for forage.

“In terms of controlling black-grass, a herbal ley is superior due to its prolonged presence in the ground and its drought resistance, attributed to the deep-rooting species it comprises. They also impart significant health benefits to livestock.”

Hayden points out that these crops require a unique management approach, where the livestock rather than the farmer, plays a pivotal role.

“By selecting appropriate crops and livestock, the sheep essentially manage the crops themselves,” he says. 

“This method involves adapting the sheep to our systems instead of modifying our system to accommodate the sheep.”

Nick elaborates on the benefits of herbal leys, noting that they not only fulfil the SAM3 requirements under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) but have also streamlined the crop rotation process.

“In 2023, we replaced oilseed rape on the farm with 60 acres of herbal ley,” he explains. “This substitution has led to improvements in soil structure and organic matter, due to the presence of legumes.

“The herbal ley also excels in fixing nitrogen, with the legumes within it reducing the need for artificial inputs. The multifaceted benefits of herbal leys are evident in numerous aspects of our agricultural practices.” 

 

Challenges and solutions

Integrating livestock, particularly sheep, into arable farming is a nuanced process requiring thorough planning; vital for ensuring both crops and livestock are managed effectively.

Hayden explains how he had to assess various critical factors which included soil conditions, crop rotation strategies to maintain soil health and he needed consider the specific dietary and environment needs of his flock.

“In addition to the agricultural considerations, we also had to navigate a host of environmental and economic pressures, one specifically being the unpredictability ofCapture nick weather conditions, which can significantly impact both crop and livestock health,” he says.

“We wanted to choose farming practices that not only improved soil resilience, by making the farm more adaptable to weather, but ones that also reduce input costs.”

Will adds: “One of the most notable outcomes was the improvement in soil health. The introduction of herbal leys into the crop rotation has contributed significantly to enhancing soil structure.

“Moreover, the grazing of sheep on these lands has played a crucial role in naturally augmenting soil fertility, promoting healthier crop growth.”

From an economic and environmental standpoint, Hayden has also observed several advantages for his wider farm.

Hayden adds: “There’s been a noticeable reduction in costs associated with livestock management, and at the same time an increase in crop yield.

“Environmentally, the farm has reaped benefits from the reduced reliance on chemical inputs, which is a significant step towards ecological conservation and enhancing biodiversity on-farm, contributing to a more balance and sustainable ecosystem.”

Hayden’s commitment to refining his farming practices remains strong, with his focus on continuously enhancing the long-term viability of his farm.

Nick adds: “This forward-thinking approach is indicative of a broader trend in agriculture, where the integration of crop and livestock farming is increasingly seen as a viable path towards robust and resilient systems.

“Hayden’s experiences serve as a testament to the potential benefits of this integrated approach, not just in terms of immediate gains but also in laying the groundwork for a more enduring agricultural future.” 

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For help and advice on how to make specialist crops work for your farm business, get the latest version of the Kings catalogue. 

 

 

 

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