Dairy farm creating a buzz

Authors: Gethin Davies (RSPB), Anna Hobbs (BBCT), Stuart Taylor (farmer, Argoed)

Dairying can be a challenging sector for farmers and wildlife. Small margins have driven increasing scale, efficiency and specialisation, which has tended to squeeze out people and space for nature. The number of dairy farmers in the UK has declined by two thirds since 1995.

Argoed Farm in North Wales showcases an alternative vision for dairying, one where nature and minimising environmental impacts are at the heart of the system.

Farming at Argoed

Argoed has been in the family of Stuart Taylor for more than 100 years. He farms it with the help of Robert and Owen Evans who have worked with him for over 20 years. As its current custodian, Stuart feels a strong responsibility to farm it well, and this extends to the farm’s natural environment, from its soil to the wildlife that share the fields overlooking the town of Mold in North Wales. This was a driver for converting to organic in 2000. The 68 hectare farm currently milks around 65 cows, selling milk through the Calon Wen organic dairy co-operative.

'Adopting a low input approach across the whole farm not only allows more space for nature to thrive – it’s also a more cost-effective way of farming.' Stuart Taylor

Stuart has kept faith with the traditional British Friesian cow. They average 6 to 7 lactations (around double the industry average), have excellent fertility and suit his focus on producing milk from grazed grass and conserved forage as he looks to minimise bought-in concentrate feed. The farm used to grow cereals in a rotation with grass but has moved to maintaining the whole farm as permanent grassland, with grass reseeding done by over-sowing into a minimally disturbed soil surface. He feels this brings more resilience to the system with the increasingly unpredictable weather making bare ground at reseeding a challenge.

Stuart has always tried to fit in wildlife conservation measures where he can, such as restoring hedgerows, digging ponds and putting up nest boxes. Recently, along with other Calon Wen farmers, he’s been working with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and the RSPB on the Pasture for Pollinators project, which trialled simple grassland management changes to boost pollen and nectar resources for bumblebees and other pollinators.

'As a farmer it’s my responsibility to look after nature and the environment on the farm as best as I can whilst I’m here.'

This project showed Argoed to have a wealth of habitats on the farm, providing the foundations for a rich food web. Although the farm is visibly nature-friendly, we wanted a way to objectively illustrate why and how Stuart’s system delivers for wildlife.

Herb-rich grasslands underpin milk production on Argoed. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

How ‘Fair to Nature’?

We tallied all the various opportunities for nature on Argoed against the criteria of the Fair To Nature standard. This looks at the percentage of the farm delivering the Farm Wildlife key actions, accounting for both non-farmed habitats such as hedgerows and ponds as well as in-field nature-friendly cropping and grassland practices. This information also provides a means to benchmark a farm’s habitat delivery over time, and potentially, with other similar farms.

Established wildlife habitats

Well-established farmland habitats are often the most wildlife-rich. On Argoed, this included a network of dense hedgerows, some small areas of woodland and scrub, and around 3ha of species-rich grassland.

Stuart believes the area of species-rich grassland hasn’t been ploughed for at least 120 years, but did receive inputs of slurry and fertiliser into the 1980s. In the last few decades he has been managing it as a hay meadow and inputs have been restricted to composted farmyard manure. He has seen plant diversity increase and the area now includes abundant ribwort plantain, yarrow, vetch, trefoil and black knapweed, with the occasional orchid starting to appear. The hay is a valued feed for the farm’s youngstock.

The field boundaries are predominantly multi-species hedgerows with many hedgerow trees, both developing and mature. Stuart trims the hedges rotationally to increase flowering and fruiting, and into a dense A shape between restoration events to provide abundant shelter and wildlife habitat.

Dense rotationally trimmed hedgerows provide corridors for insects and other species. Image (c) Stuart Taylor

Although outside the farmed area, a small traditional orchard and farm garden provide early blossom and a wide diversity of flowering plants to help pollinators obtain a continuous source of food. Wet features on the farm include three ponds, two holding water for most of the year, the other seasonally.

Flower and seed-rich habitats within the farming system

As Argoed is organic, there is a need for leguminous plants to bring nitrogen into the farming system. Stuart has been increasingly sowing diverse legume and herb mixes into his grassland, and these provide an excellent source of pollen and nectar for insects if the grazing and mowing management allows them to flower. Such grassland can be included within ‘Fair to Nature’ with a conversion factor, since the wildlife benefits, although positive, are lower per hectare than semi-natural habitats or those created primarily for nature conservation.

Grazing practices allow plants to flower and seed. Image (c) Stuart Taylor

Around 42ha of grassland is periodically over-sown with a herbal mix containing a variety of grasses along with red, white and alsike clover, ribwort plantain and chicory. This grassland area is rotationally grazed or mown for silage, where three cuts are taken with a forage wagon. Having both white and red clovers in the sward caters for both short- and long-tongued bumblebees.

The ‘Pasture for Pollinators’ project trialled leaving unmown strips in the herbal leys to extend the flowering period. If such margins are not left, widescale silage cutting can mean the local landscape can go from ‘feast to famine’ for insects overnight.

Uncut herbal mix strip. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

Bumblebee Conservation Trust surveys identified all Big 7’ widespread bumblebee species to be present on the farm, along with a diversity of other pollinators. In addition to abundant flower-rich habitat, the farm also provides good nesting opportunities for bumblebees and other pollinators through tussocky grass, bare earth in sunny locations on tracksides and field edges, and some dry-stone walls.

Common carder bee. Image (c) Anna Hobbs

Beyond the 3ha of semi-natural grassland, there is another 9ha of long-term permanent grassland that isn’t over-seeded, some parts of which contain a high diversity of flowering plants, including yarrow, self-heal, lesser trefoil, sheep’s sorrel and finer grasses such as sweet vernal. Some of this land is grazed with youngstock and some is made into hay, weather permitting. This area was counted with the legume-rich grassland at a corrected value, rather than as semi-natural, but with ongoing appropriate management this can change in future.
A total of 7.8% of the farm is made up of a variety of well-established semi-natural habitats. The main area of productive but also wildlife-friendly grassland management contributed significantly, bringing the total for the farm to around 23%. Research has shown that if between 10% and 20% of farmland can be managed in a diversity of high-quality habitats, it will provide a major buffer to the negative effects caused by increasing agricultural productivity.

Nature-friendly Argoed

‘In the past, wildlife was a by-product of farming, but farmers now have to make a choice of how nature-friendly they want to be.’

Argoed highlights that despite the immense pressures in dairying, we still have wildlife-friendly systems to champion. We need future agricultural policy to better support farmland habitats and nature-friendly practices for the many public goods they provide and help farming deliver them at scale. But perhaps the most important way we can support nature-positive food producers like Stuart is to buy their produce, giving confidence for more farmers to do similar, and drive the creation of landscapes where farmland wildlife can thrive.

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Fair To Nature habitat requirements

All Fair to Nature farms manage at least 10% of their farmed area in a range of wildlife habitats based on the following specifications:

• Existing wildlife habitats – including native woodland planted on farmland since 1992, semi-natural grassland, heathland and other high nature value habitats – no minimum (contributes towards the 10%)

• Flower-rich habitats – minimum 4%

• Seed-rich habitats – minimum 2% (not obligatory on farms with less than 10% cropped land)

• Wildlife-rich field boundaries and margins – minimum 1%

• Wet features – one feature per 100ha, average size 25m2 (area contributes towards the 10%)

These specifications are based on the Farm Wildlife partnership’s key actions for farmland wildlife. Several habitats have a conversion factor since the wildlife benefits, although positive, are lower per hectare than semi-natural habitats or habitats created primarily for nature conservation.

New research: What limits bumblebee populations on farmland?

Authors: Dr Tom Timberlake and Prof Jane Memmott 

A new study by Tom Timberlake and colleagues at the University of Bristol shows how important late summer flowers and rural gardens can be for supporting bumblebees on UK farmland.

Does this offer an opportunity to devise more targeted agri-environment schemes for pollinators?

Pollen and nectar are the main source of food for bees, including the charismatic and agriculturally important bumblebee. It is no surprise then that declining flower densities – particularly on farmland – are considered one of the most important drivers of pollinator decline. Agri-environment schemes which incentivise the planting of wildflower strips and the expansion of semi-natural flowering habitats such as hedgerows and field margins are an important tool for reversing pollinator declines, but are they really the most efficient way of supporting pollinators?

Image 1: For bumblebees like this one (Bombus terrestris), it’s not just about how much food is available, it’s also when that food is available through the year. A dandelion flowering in early spring for example, would be more valuable to a bumblebee than an equivalent flower in mid-summer.
Image: T. Timberlake

Whilst agri-environment schemes have successfully increased the overall numbers of flowers on farmland, they tend to overlook the timing of when these flowers are available to pollinators. Different plants flower at different times and most of the plants in agri-environment schemes flower in late spring and early summer which often isn’t the period of greatest need for pollinators. Pollinators need a continuous supply of food throughout their flight season, and for species with long flight seasons such as bumblebees, this means from late February, right through until October. ‘Hunger gaps’ of even one week could limit the number of pollinators surviving through the year.

Hunger gaps

To support pollinators in the most effective and cost-efficient way, it makes sense to find out when these hunger gaps occur and then devise targeted management or planting schemes to plug these gaps. A previous study by our team did just this and showed that nectar supplies on farmland were most limited in early spring (March) and late summer.

To check what effect these ‘hunger gaps’ were having on bumblebee populations, we carried out a study on 12 farms around the west of England. We captured, recorded and released hundreds of bumblebees and then measured all sorts of features of the farms to find out which aspects of the farm were most important in determining bumblebee density.

To our surprise, the supply of nectar in late summer (September) was by far the most important factor driving bumblebee density on these farms – more so even than the amount of natural habitat. Late summer is a very important stage in the lifecycle of bumblebees – it is when new queens are produced and must pile on the pounds before their winter hibernation. A rich supply of flowers is therefore crucial, but with fewer and fewer hay meadows, cover crops and weedy areas to provide this late summer nectar on farmland, bumblebees are struggling.

Image 2: Low nectar supplies in late summer coincide with an important stage in the colony lifecycle, limiting colony density the following year. How might we change the shape of this curve to reduce the September bottleneck?

How to plug the gap

So what can we do to plug this late-summer hunger gap on farmland and support bumblebees? On our farms at least, ivy was the most important plant for providing nectar during this sparse time, so managing your hedgerows and woodland edges to promote this amazing plant is a good first step. Leaving some rough weedy corners for late flowering species like thistles, knapweed, scabious and dandelions can also contribute to plugging the gap.

We found that Environmental Stewardship Scheme pollen and nectar mixes were really effective at increasing overall nectar supplies but were far more effective when mown early, or in multiple phases, to extend flowering into the late summer.

Finally, if you want to give those hungry queen bumblebees a real treat in the run-up to autumn, a tasty cover crop of late-flowering red clover would do just the trick. A single hectare of this crop could provide around 1 kilogram of raw nectar sugar each day and completely close the late summer gap.

There was one final surprise in our results… Small patches of garden were having a significant influence on the density of bumblebees. Farms with more gardens had more bumblebee colonies.

Gardens have a far denser and more diverse supply of flowers than farmland and are often managed to keep things flowering throughout the whole year. These little floral oases seem to be throwing bumblebees a lifeline during periods when farmland offers very little.

Image 3: Species which flower in September such as dandelions, red clover, ivy and thistles (clockwise from top left) are likely to be disproportionately important to bumblebees and other pollinators. Including these and other late-flowering species in conservation schemes will help fill the late summer hunger gap.
Images: T. Timberlake & Wikimedia Commons

How much and when

The take home message is that it’s not just about how much food we provide for pollinators, it’s also about when that food is available through the year.

Providing more flowers in the early spring and late summer when bumblebees are at their hungriest is a great way to support these important creatures.

Image 4: Some examples of low quality (left) and high quality (right) farmland habitats for pollinators. The more diverse and flower-rich high quality habitats tend to provide a more consistent supply of nectar through the year, helping to fill those important hunger gaps.
Image: Nick Tew

This article is the summary of a University of Bristol-led research paper published by Thomas Timberlake, Jane Memmott, Ian Vaughan and Mathilde Baude in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The work was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) with additional support from the NERC Biomolecular Analysis Facility.

Case Study: Pasture for Pollinators

Authors: Owain Rowlands ( Menter a Busnes ) & Anna Hobbs ( Bumblebee Conservation Trust )

 

Welsh dairy farmers and bumblebees don’t normally crop up in the same context but a group of organic dairy farmers in Wales, who market their products under the Calon Wen brand, are hoping to change things.

Six of the Calon Wen farmers have been growing multi-species Herbal leys, which include flowering herbs, legumes and grasses, for a three-year European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Wales project.

The project is aiming to show that some simple changes to grassland management can go hand in hand with boosting pollen and nectar resources for bumblebees and other pollinators.

Herbal ley plants in flower. © Anna Hobbs

In 2018, each of the farmers sowed a Herbal ley from Cotswold Seeds which includes bird’s-foot trefoil, clovers (red, white, sweet and alsike), sainfoin, and other species which can help to enhance pollinator populations.

During the silage season, the farmers have been leaving a 100m by 4m uncut (or ungrazed) strip along a field margin.  During first or second silage cuts, they are leaving one headland uncut; then at the next silage cut the previously uncut area is mowed and a different area of headland is left uncut. Late grazing of permanent grassland has also been explored by some of the farmers.

These grass management techniques aim to help provide bees and other pollinators with the continuous supply of flowers they require to forage on. By alternating headlands, they can also keep the whole field in good agricultural condition.

Uncut margin in herbal ley silage field © Anna Hobbs

Monitoring by Bumblebee Conservation Trust staff in 2018 and 2019 has shown higher numbers of bumblebees and other pollinators, and also greater numbers of pollinator species, in the uncut/ ungrazed margins compared to cut/ grazed field margins.

With one year of monitoring to go, the results indicate that this is a practical management technique for livestock farmers to help support bumblebee and other pollinator populations, especially in terms of ‘bridging gaps’ in nectar and pollen forage resources throughout the season.

In one survey in 2019 at Cop House Farm, Chester where David Edge milks 300 proCROSS cows producing an average of 7500 litres per cow, pollinator numbers rose from 12 in the cut part of the field to 189 in the uncut margin.

Common carder bee on clover. © Anna Hobbs

Anna Hobbs, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust Officer responsible for surveying the farms remarked “the results that we have collected so far are really encouraging.”

David Edge, Calon Wen farmers says “We’ve run this project as farmers which I hope will show others how bumblebee conservation can be practical and beneficial to the farm. I believe that more often than not, wildlife conservation can go hand in hand with productive farming.”

Pollination is one of the most critical services that nature provides, underpinning food production and biodiversity. Around a third of the global food crop and three-quarters of British wild plants are dependent on pollination. Compared to horticultural and arable systems, much less attention has been given to how grass-based livestock farming, such as dairying, can benefit pollinator populations.

Watch the Video. for a visual summary of the project.

Case study: Herb-rich leys

Author: Ian Boyd
Farm: Whittington Lodge Farm, Gloucestershire

Aims:

Whittington Lodge Farm has predominately thin Cotswold Brash soils on 280ha, mostly over 800 feet in altitude. The cultivated half of the farm was in a continuous arable system, but average yields meant it was only marginally viable and blackgrass was creeping in.

In 2015, it was decided to undergo organic conversion on all the arable area to combine with the fully organic grassland. Herb-rich leys were introduced into the rotation to build fertility for the organic cereals. They are grazed by an existing and expanded suckler herd of native Hereford cows and calves.

Cattle grazing a herb-rich ley at Whittington Lodge Farm. Image credit: Ian Boyd

Management:

The herb-rich leys contain at least 5 species of grass, 5 legumes and 5 herbs which all add to the biodiversity with varying rooting depth in the shallow soils. They are established by under-sowing in spring barley crops, broadcast with an Opico seeder/harrow once the barley plants have reached the 3 leaf stage. This way the undersown plants are still small enough not to interfere with the barley combining. Grazing can begin in the autumn.

The herb-rich ley can last for 4 years and can be grazed or conserved as hay or silage. It can fit in well with other grasslands like permanent pasture with the management of grazing livestock.

Mob grazing can help achieve the best from the leys. The cattle are moved frequently, usually daily, onto fresh grazing and a back fence stops them eating any re-growth after about 3 days. The adage is that you should not see the cattle’s knees when they go in and you should not see their ankles when they come out. Some of the herbage is eaten, some trampled and some left so that the root structure underneath the plants is maintained and re-growth is rapid.

Then, most importantly, the ley is rested for a couple of months to allow plants to flower and set seed before the next grazing. This will provide habitat for invertebrates, including crop pollinators, and improve soil structure and water infiltration.

Moving the electric fence is a daily commitment but it makes it easier to check and count the stock as they run past.

The cost of seed is significant but no nitrogen is required, and it is possible to incorporate this option into a Countryside Stewardship scheme and claim payments for it.

As the soil organic matter level is improved, more grass will be grown and stocking rates will be able to be increased. This system suits both cattle and sheep on organic and non-organic farms.

Achievements:

There are multiple benefits to herb-rich leys. When terminated, they provide an ideal entry to cereal crops for several years, organic or not. The arable weed spectrum is dramatically reduced, especially blackgrass.
Soil health and organic matters levels will have been increased with large amounts of carbon sequestered into the soil, far more than the effects of methane produced by the cattle.

The nutrient density of the beef will be greater when multiple species and biodiversity are eaten with knock-on health benefits for the cattle and consumer.

The farmland wildlife is a big winner here, with many different plants flowering producing nectar for pollinating insects and producing seed (and insects) for many bird species to eat. Skylarks nest everywhere, hares and roe deer love to graze it. Kestrels and barn owls hunt for short-tailed field voles living in the long grass and snipe are increasingly being seen looking for worms in the winter time.

It really helps to be organised and to have planned the rotational grazing before the start of the season. Access to water, ease of moving electric fences and having the cattle in the right place at the right date all have to be factored in.

This system really suits British native breeds of cattle, which can readily be managed to Pasture-for-Life standards (essentially no grain fed). Pasture-for-Life beef allows the opportunity to brand and market it yourself with a great story for a higher price than the beef commodity market can pay.

www.cotswoldbeef.com