Exploring the challenges and opportunities “Beneath our Feet” at North Wyke

Exploring the challenges and opportunities “Beneath our Feet” at North Wyke

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Thursday 16th July over 60 attendees embarked on North Wyke Farm Platform to explore the grassland beneath our feet.

The event aimed to deliver an informative and practical introduction on a number of topics influencing grassland productivity, from the hidden properties of soil types to knowing your grass and clover varieties. It also provided the opportunity to view first-hand the research facilities embedded on the farm at Rothamsted Research, North Wyke (Devon).


Independent soils specialist David Hogan, began the day by explaining the nature of the soil type at the site, showing participants the various layers of top and sub-soils. The soils at the site are underlain by the Carboniferous Crackington Formation of clay shales with subsidiary tin bands of sandstone – this geology is known as the Culm Measures and gives rise to notoriously difficult soils due to the propensity of the clay fraction to weather to impenetrable clay lining that prevents downwards drainage under waterlogged conditions.

Adam Reeves, farm manager at Quickes traditional cheeses and BGS-AHDB Dairy Demo Farmer, then gave an overview of some practical steps taken on the different soil types at his farm (near Crediton, Devon) to prevent and alleviate soil compaction. Various projects and studies indicate that soil compaction is a significant problem in Britain’s grassland, perhaps as much as 70% expressing some degree of compression. Adam now undertakes grassland sub-soiling every other year when compaction is identified through visual assessment and regularly surface aerates grazing paddocks, using a knife-style slitter.

A comprehensive introduction to grass and clover varieties was later given by Helen Mathieu of Germinal. Helen encouraged use of the Recommended Grass and Clover List when selecting seeds, explaining that based on the trails work undertaken to get a variety into the recommended list producers could expect to grow 10% more by using types on the list as opposed to not. There was also interesting discussion about the role of mixes compared to single varieties, recognising that whilst varieties are bred to be the best in certain niches, adopting a mix of five plus varieties allows a farmers to hedge their bets in practice, for example allowing for natural environmental variability between seasons. The idea of niche complementarity is useful in determining the mix that producers and seed suppliers should be looking for, whereby each variety and/or species is able to benefit from a component of the environment and/or management to provide the best overall advantage. Helen also demonstrated how to recognise the nitrogen fixing nodules on a clover root, providing some tips for maintaining clover in grazing situations.

Wrapping up the day Robert Orr, a grassland researcher based at North Wyke, led a guided tour of the research taking place on the Farm Platform. The tour encompassed the three ‘treatments’ being researched: 1. Permanent pasture: improvement through use of inorganic fertilisers 2. Increased use of legumes: replacing nitrogen fertilisers with biological fixation using sown legume and grass mixtures and 3. Planned reseeding providing opportunities for introducing innovative varieties with desirable traits such as high sugar grasses and deep rooting grasses.

First the group saw the beef yearlings out grazing on reseeded pastures, which had been sown with a 1 x perennial ryegrass 1 x white clover mix. Clover content was currently lower than planned due to spraying for docks last year, but was gradually increasing again.

They also visited the flumes that measure a range of physical and chemical parameters in the water draining from the grassland and a study currently underway to measure the soil-atmosphere nitrogen exchange in permanent pastures grazed by sheep and beef cattle.

Attendees included a range of farmers, professionals and specialists all of which we hope benefited from the opportunity to interact, debate and learn together. Attendee Joanna Basset a farmer from the edge of Dartmoor commented that “as farmers with an interest in improving our grassland quality and productivity, we certainly came away with greater knowledge and ideas of how this can be carried out on our own farm”.

Many thanks go to all of the speakers; David Hogan (independent), Adam Reeves (Quickes Traditional Cheeses), Helen Mathieu (Germinal) and Robert Orr (Rothamsted Research) and to Dow Agro-Sciences who provided funding towards the catering costs and Tom Chillcott (Dow) for his presentation on grassland weed control.


Report by Charlotte Evans, BGS Technical Project Manager



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