Soil is arguably the most important asset that a farmer or landowner possess. However, our soils are in crisis and we urgently need to implement solutions to help restore our soils to a healthy state. Improving soil management can be achieved through making the right land management choices.
One such strategy that can be employed to help provide a favourable environment includes using a herbal lay within a crop rotation. A herbal ley is a complex seed mixture of grass, herb and legume species that have traditionally been used to build soil fertility and structure in arable rotation. Introducing herbal leys into a crop rotation can produce significant benefits for soil health, but also to livestock health and the wider environment.
Key benefits to local communities
Along with producing commercial products, agriculture delivers societal public goods such as water regulation, erosion control, resilience to floods and climate change mitigation. When farmers and land managers employ techniques that have catchment scale impacts this can bring about improvements to drinking water quality or reduce flood risk in towns and villages.
Deep-rooting leys can have wider societal benefits through capturing carbon from the atmosphere and transferring it into the soil, helping to mitigate against climate change. Another benefit of plants with deep roots is that they can penetrate further down into the soil to draw up moisture, providing grazing for livestock during periods of drought. Herbal leys also improve soil structure which helps to increase flood resilience as deep-rooted plants enables water to infiltrate the soil more easily.
Key benefits to farmers
Farmers who use herbal leys in rotation spend less on inputs, thanks to the improvements they make to the soil. Managing herbal leys through rotational grazing of livestock will naturally recycle and deposit nutrients and organic material back into the soil. Plants such as Chicory, Sainfoin and Birdsfoot Trefoil can provide an increased defence against internal parasites. When plants are grown together in a mixture they yield more than their average due to overlapping growth habitats and patterns. Legumes replace costly fertiliser as they naturally produce Nitrogen that they release into the soil, which benefits the growth of other plants.
Key benefits to biodiversity
A herbal ley not only increases soil quality but also increases soil life. Healthy soils provide a dynamic ecosystem for micro-organisms, such as bacteria and fungi, that break down pollutants and convert organic matter into accessible nutrients. Legume and herb rich swards provide a wide range of food sources for insects, which are crucial to farming as they pollinate crops, while also helping to control harmful pests.
Earthworms are good indicators of soil health as they play an important role in returning carbon dioxide to the soil. Furthermore, they incorporate oxygen and organic matter into the soil and help support soil structure. Healthy soils underpin the whole food web and are critical to supporting more visible wildlife, such as birds and mammals.