Thank you to Julian for these interesting observations:
What a summer to remember! For any meadow owners who’ve had to cut a crop for hay, or haylage it’s clearly been the best year in ages for getting it into a shed or wrapped with no problems, though perhaps quantities are reduced after the cold late spring and then very dry weather from May onwards.
But for anyone who has stock that are grazing their land permanently, there are currently likely to be huge issues with the lack of aftermath regrowth. Our total annual rainfall here, since I began measuring it, has ranged from 1600 to 2150 mm. Monthly maximas from 534 mm in December 2015 downwards. Our previous longest summer dry spell saw 95 mm fall in June and July of August 2014. This year we have had just 89 mm since May 1st.
So I’m sharing some of our experiences this year. We only take a hay crop off part of 2 ( out of 6) paddocks – 1 upland sloping, 1 valley bottom wet, which we need for our small flock of Tor Ddu sheep. We do this semi manually, by cutting with a walk behind BCS Powerscythe, turning mainly now with a mini Molon turner which fits onto the BCS power unit, which also rows the hay up. Although under some conditions manual turning works better.
The hay is then raked and manually stuffed into Big Bags and dragged off the fields and stored loose in small hay sheds. (We’ve found it stores better out of the bags). The manual effort involved in this means, as old fogies, we can never cut more than a small amount in 1 day, since we have to be prepared to make hay in 48 hours, which has been the default maximum time between showers for many recent summers until this summer of 2018.
After experimenting for 5 years, this year we decided to start cutting the peripheral field margins on our upper hay meadow, which always grow lusher and quicker than the central areas of this field, first. This began on May 21st. Stock had been kept out from early February. The crop was very light, but conditions were good for haymaking, though some overheated and needed manually re-turning (below) once the typical unanticipated showers had been and gone…
In the end we’d got all of our designated hay areas in both fields finished by the last week in June. Way too early for wildflower seed set?
Well, interestingly these first cut areas behaved as though they’d had a Chelsea chop ( in gardening parlance). Because the annual Yellow Rattle was beheaded before any seed was set, it regrew, flowered and set seed after the main crop in the centre of the field had finished – a great extra resource for nectar seeking insects…We’ve just had a Bumblebee survey conducted by Clare Flynn form Bumblebee Conservation, and she was delighted by the number of bumbles here, finding 7 species, including the Cuckoo bumblebee Bombus vestalis which probably use both our meadows and garden for foraging. Clare in the uncut section of our lower wet hay meadow below …It’s persuaded me to sign up to do a regular Bumblebee monitoring walk on our land to monitor these insects long term. Click here for the BeeWalk project. Bombus vestalis below…
Although the masses of Sweet Vernal grass, which is our primary grass species in the upper meadow, had flowered in the early cut sections, it hadn’t set seed. This grass species hasn’t produced much of a second flush of flowers. Instead the later flowering grasses (including ? Common Bent – I’m not a grass expert!) have now produced seed heads.
Even more surprising was that in one area subjected to an early cut, a single Heath Spotted Orchid hybrid, survived, flowered and set seed, in spite of such an early assault… The later flowering Greater Bird’s foot trefoil, has also recovered and is just now producing some flowers and greenery in areas near to the hedges…
How do other areas of this meadow look now? Some small sections with the majority of the increasing orchid count …(83 this year, up from just 1 flower, 4 years ago) are still uncut and straw like in appearance….
The main section of this field cut in late June, (above middle left), and on an East facing slope have almost no grass regrowth at all. But there’s still greenery in this section – the Ribwort Plantain… Dandelions and Fox and Cubs …
… all with deeper root systems looked slightly stunted but still green. The sorrel is just beginning to recover too, in this late cut area…….whilst in the earlier cut sections the closely related Sheep’s Sorrel has flowered and set seed…
At some point we’ll need to wean our lambs onto this field, so even with our low stocking density we do need some aftermath grazing! Shifting these meadows towards greater diversity, and cutting early (at least some sections) will definitely have helped both overall productivity in the very dry conditions of 2018. In addition it may have really helped all the invertebrate life which would been more impacted with conventional removal of all the crop at one time.
Obviously, however, this piece meal approach won’t easily work with larger machinery or with a contractor, but for any with smaller areas, say less than 2 acres, it could be an option to consider.
With the above backdrop I was interested by the recently established trial on increasing diversity in pasture swards by the University of Reading. The Diverse Forages project began in 2017. By using standardised plots using increasing numbers of species in the seed mixes for newly sown pasture (6,12,17 species), it has a number of targets and measurements:
• Biomass yield, forage quality, botanical composition, and soil properties in a long-term replicated trial plot study at multiple sites
• A comparison of pasture resilience under waterlogged and drought conditions assessed using trial plots
• On-farm case studies from ten demonstration farms in South and South West England
• A two-year evaluation of forage nutritional value, including measurements of digestibility, nitrogen use efficiency, methane emission mitigation potential, and growth rate of grazing cattle
• A modelling exercise to determine economic and environmental impacts of the mixtures at farm-scale.
You can read a review of a discussion workshop of its first year’s results by clicking here.
This review includes
“Results from the EU Cost study showed that 98% of the mixed swards tested outperformed the yield of the average component species
sown in monoculture,”
and “The SmartGrass project indicated reduced requirement for
worming lambs fed on multi-species pasture.”
and “described how one dairy farmer growing diverse forages had enabled him to more than double his soil
organic matter over a number of
years which in turn allowed him
to increase stocking rate.”
Click here for more detail on the study which will run for 5 years. Although it’s clearly aimed much more at commercial farmers, it may raise awareness of the benefits of sward diversity, and after the 2018 results are available, it may indeed highlight the fact that in extreme weather, having all your fodder eggs in the perennial ryegarass basket is a very dangerous thing to do.
Most readers on this site will of course already be aware of the huge benefits of species diversity in grassland – that’s partly really why CMG exists, but it’s great to see that some hard data on species diversity in pasture may gradually be accumulated and affect mainstream agricultural practice, once a study like this has been completed.
Reinventing the wheel perhaps?
Really interesting, and lovely photos, thank you!
Fascinating article Julian. Here at our place we’re probably the only meadow owners who haven’t yet cut their fields, due to the usual dithering and eventual wrong decision taken by me. As everyone has found, the almost unheard of (since 1976) lack of rain this summer meant that the usual flush of grass regrowth we get after the yellow rattle dies back didn’t happen as normal, so we decided to wait, hoping for SOME rain to revive the grass, then enough consecutive dry days to do the fields. We sell our bales to a friend whose sheep do our aftermath grazing, and he keeps anxiously asking if we’ve baled the fields yet, because like most livestock keepers, he’s desperately short of winter feed. But I console him with the assurance that when it does at last get cut and baled, at least there will be a bit more grass in the bales than there would have been if i’d done it sooner.
If the aim was to get the best quality hay crop possible, of course it would have been done much earlier, during the period while the grass was flowering, but since we’re trying to maximise the floral diversity, doing it very late shouldn’t be a bad thing. In fact the Waun Las reserve meadows at the NBGW are always cut in August or sometimes September. LIke you, we’ve seen our orchid count increase a lot, last year we had one southern marsh in our top field, this year there were 12; this was another reason for my dithering before cutting the fields – to ensure that they had time to set seed (more like brown dust….).
Like you, we’ve found that the grass is lusher near the edges of the fields. With our 2 meadows, 5 of the 8 boundaries are mature treelines, and it’s the edges near those that have the lusher grass. We’ve assumed that this is due to leaf fall increasing the soil fertility, and maybe shade enabling the near-surface soil moisture to be retained longer. The yellow rattle plants in these areas are also much bigger and more butch than those in the field centres, presumably because the grass is, and they can therefore get more nutrient from the grass that they parasitise. We could, like you, cut these areas before the rest of each field, but we’ve never thought of doing that.
It’s very interesting that the rattle will regrow and still flower and seed, having been cut before it flowered. Last year, we found that cat’s ear (of which we have masses) had another flush of flowers after the fields had been cut. But it’s even more interesting that you had an orchid surviving the cut and going on to flower. Do you think this is because its basal leaf rosette was all that was there when you did the cut? Or, can anyone answer this question: as monocots, do orchids have an “intercalary meristem” – this is what enables grasses to survive grazing, they grow from the base as well as the tip. I have so far been unable to find this out from a brief google search.
Very interesting project on Diverse Forage as well, it’ll be nice to have some more evidence to add to that already summarised in the review by Plantlife available here: http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk/assets/pdfs/Is_the_rye-grass_always_greener_An_evidence_review.pdf