Research project shows benefit of mixed farming

A move towards specialisation has been widely accepted as the route to progress on many expanding farm businesses, but Scottish research has revealed that integrating livestock and arable farming can benefit both sectors.

The abandonment of traditional mixed farm practices in recent decades has often been adopted to focus management skills and reduce the spread of capital expenditure while avoiding competing calls on scarce labour resources.

However a research project carried out in Angus showed that grazing livestock on winter cereals could help aid soil biology, allow for earlier drilling dates, control pests and diseases and influence yield potential.

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The project revisited a practice often adopted last century - which saw sheep termed “the golden hoof” - and began as a Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group, facilitated by Peter Lindsay and Zach Riley of SAC Consulting.

Lindsay said that while the project was originally set up to see if there were any obvious detrimental effects of such an approach, most of the results of adopting the mixed approach were beneficial for the grain crop.

Trials were carried out at Iain Graham and Iain Wilkinson’s Balgay Farming Partnership after the dry spell during the summer of 2018 severely reduced grass growth.

A mixed farming business with cropping, beef and sheep, the impact of drought on grass growth during 2018 prompted the business to take a look at ways to utilise arable land to aid livestock performance while improving the soil microbiome.

The trial consisted of two-hectare blocks drilled with winter wheat, winter barley and winter oats, split into grazed and non-grazed sections. And despite the sheep grazing the winter barley “to the bone” not only did the experiment deliver additional winter forage for sheep, it also returned an increased grain yield of around 0.5-0.75 tonnes per hectare.

The results from the trials also indicated potential benefits to soil structure - and raised the prospect of allowing crops to be sown 2 to 3 weeks earlier and then be grazed to keep proud growth in check.

“Traditionally, Iain Wilkinson would begin sowing winter crops around the first week of September, but with the farm situated on very flat, heavy carse clay, the land can often be affected by heavy rain,” said Lindsay.

“This year we decided to bring the sowing date forward to 17 August, with the aim of getting all the crops in the ground before the weather broke and not being force to drill the problem fields last as is usually the case.

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“Sheep have recently been put onto this early-sown wheat to graze back the leaves and hold growth development, while at the same time adding some biology to the field.”

Additional funding through a new MIXED EU project has been awarded to allow the exploration of different mixed agricultural systems and their effects on resilience to climate change and sustainability.

Christine Watson, professor of agricultural systems at SRUCsaid collaboration across systems was an important factor in maintaining system resilience.

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