Regenerative Pioneer farmer named 2022 Soil Farmer of the Year runner-up
Andrew Rees has developed his dairy system with soil health at the centre, earning him success in this year’s Soil Farmer of the Year competition run by Farm Carbon Toolkit. Hosting a farm walk in the summer gave local farmers and industry professionals a chance to learn more.
Over the last five years, Moor Farm near Haverfordwest has moved away from a conventional high nitrogen, short rotational grazing system to one integrating multi-species leys and using more targeted plant nutrition.
The benefits Andrew has seen include a reduction in fertiliser use alongside better herd health and a large reduction in veterinary fees.
Andrew has created a system intended to provide year-round forage but moving away from pure perennial ryegrass leys had its challenges: “Working to a 21-day grazing rotation is stressful, you can quickly run out of grass during adverse conditions. The aim of using herbal leys was to increase the resilience of the grazing platform. Now we have much more ahead of us and more flexibility where we aim for a 60-day rest period at least.
“We started by sowing simple diverse mixtures but managed them like ryegrass so lost the diversity and potential yield. Now the longer rest periods make the leys far more resilient.”
Fields are divided into 0.1ha blocks and animals moved according to need. Andrew has a keen eye for how much forage his grazing groups require: “We use a leader-follower approach with R1 heifers grazing first and 24 hours between the groups in each grazing cell. The smaller cattle have preferential and unlimited grazing. Not forcing young animals to graze down also helps lower worm burdens.”
“Hopefully anything which isn’t grazed is trampled; that is when we know we have the right stocking density and number of moves per day. If it becomes a bit stemmy we move the stock more often, up to four times per day.”
The trampling action Andrew integrates into his system has wider benefits for the soil: “We don’t want bare soils that cap and produce conditions for weeds to appear. By keeping the surface covered with growing plant matter or trampled residue, we reduce our weed burden. The different rooting systems also open the soil up and improve the structure, removing the conditions in which weeds can dominate.”
Andrew’s system has created a focus on a long rotational grazing platform for both the milking herd and youngstock with deferred grazing to provide areas for outwintering cattle: “We have replaced kale with a deferred grazing system to outwinter our R1 heifers. Bales provide additional feed throughout the winter.
“Outwintered heifers are moved every two days or up to three times daily to avoid soil damage if conditions become wet, with an option to bring them in if necessary.”
To establish his leys, Andrew uses minimal cultivation, removing old leys with low-rate glyphosate buffered with humic and citric acid. He drills the seed in two directions to increase the eventual cover with an application of seaweed as a nutritional boost.
The diverse mixtures contain ryegrass, tall fescue, cocksfoot, timothy, chicory, plantain and a mixture of clovers, with additional annuals, such as sunflower, linseed, radish, peas and cereals, in the first year.
These species have a far lower demand for nitrogen compared to perennial ryegrass and much better at scavenging existing nutrients from within the soil. Andrew has, on average, reduced nitrogen by 140kg per hectare.
He has recently started silaging the herbal leys, which will be analysed when the clamp is opened and fed as part of the usual ration. Andrew also frequently tissue tests his leys, results suggesting the mineral content is double that found in his previous grass system.
Fields destined for silage are given slurry before and after the first cut with a 25kg sprinkle of N prior to cutting. A Tow and Fert tops up fine lime, phosphate and humates alongside foliar potassium. Andrew samples a fifth of the farm every year, allowing him to understand where his nutrients are most required.
Herd health is a main priority and livestock performance has seen vast improvements: “Having the cows grazing the diverse leys has improved butter fats and allowed us to stretch out the grazing season where historically we may have run out of grass. The herd is currently balanced between herbal leys, traditional grass pasture and silage in the yard. The additional grass means we only need to supplement around 4kg of cake per day, massively reducing costs.”
The cows are far more content which has also improved health and fertility. Empty rates have decreased from 10.5% in 2019 to 5.5% in 2021 and mastitis per 100 cows reducing from 19.7 in 2019 to 3.5 in 2021.
The increased fertility has allowed Andrew to move his spring calving system later so they can calve to match grass growth, reducing the housing requirement as calves are weaned on grass with outside grazing access from four weeks of age. Worm burden and the requirement for anthelmintics have drastically reduced. Andrew has found very little, if any, wormers are required due to the long-grass grazing system with animals biting higher up the plant in combination with chicory-rich pastures.
Asked about how he would advise others beginning along the herbal or diverse ley journey Andrew said, “Start by drilling the leys in spring as this gives a much better chance for establishment. If you are going in later when conditions could be drier or colder it might be too tough for the clover.”
At Moor Farm, the leys are highly diverse and full of many different species. Andrew’s thinking behind this is, “When you establish herbal leys you often see a drop in yield compared to a perennial ryegrass, so we also drill in summer annual species to help build the quantity of forage available to graze. If we are establishing a ley in the spring, we would expect to be able to graze it that autumn. This would be a lighter graze than in the second year and not as tight, to make sure we don’t stress the plants too much”.
Andrew’s next focus is around nitrogen reduction, “The aim is to be using zero chemical nitrogen while maintaining current production. I want to leave the land in a better condition than when we started while also being financially profitable.”
Taken from and reproduced with kind permission of Farm Carbon Toolkit.