The word ‘rotation’ is coming more into the fore on many arable units. And this isn’t assumed nowadays to be a cereal rotation, but one that can include grass and forage crops, especially on mixed farms with sheep flocks, finishing lamb or cattle enterprises.
“Some arable producers might go as far as introducing livestock – finishing lambs or beef cattle, and this can bring great advantages to the business,” says Limagrain’s Martin Titley.
“Forage crops or grass swards provide a cost-effective feed for livestock, but they also bring great benefits for soil health and weed control.”
Stubble turnips, forage rape and the new rape/kale hybrids can be sown up until the end of August. They’re quick to establish and some varieties can be ready for grazing within 12 and 14 weeks of sowing. Hardier varieties can be left for grazing over winter.
“A crop of stubble turnips after winter barley is ideal for finishing lambs. It’s ready for grazing by the end of October, and a hectare of stubble turnips will provide 40 days worth of grazing for 100 lambs. This enables many farmers to sell a crop of lambs early in the season, when prices tend to be higher.”
Rape/kale hybrids are fast-growing catch crops and there are high yielding varieties. “Interval, for example, produced dry matter yields 17% above the control in our recent trial work,” adds Mr Titley. “This makes it an ideal crop for finishing lambs or for maintenance of ewes from late summer onwards,” he adds.
Stubble turnips also make an ideal feed in the autumn with hardy, mildew tolerant varieties such as Rondo are ideally suited to grazing through winter.
“Look at some good brassica mixtures too. They can combine a high protein forage rape with kale, blended with a high-energy stubble turnip to provide a balanced autumn and winter keep with minimal effort. There are good mixtures with ‘built-in’ disease resistance, winter hardiness and early establishment advantages.”
Another catch crop worth considering is forage rye that can be sown as late as October, following maize or cereals. This can provide an early bite in spring with up to three weeks’ earlier spring growth than Italian ryegrass with yields that are typically between five and six tonnes of dry matter per hectare.
He encourages arable producers to think more widely about the choice of crops for livestock. “The 2017/18 was a long season and many forages ran out. With some careful planning, farmers can have a crop to graze right through the season.”
Breaking the arable rotation with grass leys, fast-growing brassica crops and root crops can also help combat black grass. “These roots and brassicas can be grazed off ahead of a spring crop, or ahead of a grass reseed. And leaving a grass ley down for two years or more will help break the blackgrass cycle too. These rotations can have a very beneficial impact on weed control and soil health.
“And of course, soil always benefits from increased organic matter,” adds Mr Titley. “Manure from grazing animals is slowly released and can be utilised by the arable crops that follow in the rotation.
“In many cases, breaking the arable rotation with a fodder crop or grass is a win-win situation, and one we are seeing increasingly on many traditional cereal units.”