Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Animal and Plant Sciences

Abstract

The economic and environmental sustainability of UK arable farming is facing a crisis, caused in part by soil degradation as a result of continuous intensive cultivation. The use of ploughing and short rotations in which a small number of crops (especially wheat and oilseed rape) are grown with very high frequency with high reliance on inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides has led to loss of soil organic matter, compaction, reduced water-storage capacity and increased risks of water pollution from soil erosion and agro-chemicals, and reduced farm profitability. This has been compounded by the build-up of increasingly intractable herbicide- resistant weeds in wheat such as blackgrass, and pesticide- resistant insects such as flea beetle in oilseed rape in these short rotations.
To address these problems, some farmers are starting to return to mixed farming, reintroducing leys containing grass and clover, grazed by sheep, into arable rotations hoping this will improve soil quality, reduce weeds and diseases and boost profits, but without the critical evidence they need to guide these decisions.
Our multidisciplinary proposal directly addresses this industry-led research need. We recognize the urgent requirement to determine how best to restore soil quality, and achieve good livestock production and economic returns through a comprehensive evaluation of the costs and benefits of such systems. Our goal is to provide the first comprehensive industry-informed, farmer-participatory assessment of soil quality, environmental and economic cost-benefits, farmer motivations and barriers to reintroducing sheep into arable rotations, focused on our most intensively cultivated areas of eastern England.
Our approach is to compare traditional grazed grass-clover leys and conventional crop cultivation, with innovative management systems that hold the promise of better returns involving combining novel species-rich herbal leys, mowing and no-tillage direct drilling of the crops. The work is divided into five work packages.
1.Farmer-participatory research network: We are building a network of arable farmers who are already conducting initial trials into introducing grass-clover and species-rich herbal leys, sheep and no- tillage, into arable rotations. We will run workshops with participant farmers, as well as those who have not made these changes, and conduct a large-scale farmer-survey to understand the motivations for, and barriers to, incorporating these alternative systems. We will identify where farmers have had success with these approaches and what has made them successful.
2.Soil quality restoration and sheep production: We will set up field experiments with a participatory group of farmers to compare the effects of herb-rich leys with traditional grass-clover leys under sheep grazing versus mowing, on soil quality, (organic matter, structure, effects on water storage and infiltration, nutrient cycling, earthworms and organisms associated with sheep faeces. We will assess sheep production (live weight gain, and intestinal pathogens) and the biomass production of the leys.
3 Effects of reducing tillage: Determine whether direct drilling offers benefits over disc or plough-based tillage on subsequent arable crop production and soil quality following leys (including assessment of yield, nutrient use efficiency, weeds, diseases and pests) in our participatory farm-based trials.
4 Farm-scale cost-benefit analysis: Evaluate the environmental and economic cost-benefits of bringing sheep and grass-clover versus herbal leys into arable rotations, mowing, and use of direct drilling compared to current arable tillage practices - assessing the costs and output values to farms, and nutrient use efficiency of the different approaches.
5 Upscaling and policy implications: Landscape-scale effects including impacts on flood and pollution risk and consider targeted farm payments to encourage the most beneficial practices

Technical Summary

This multidisciplinary research project will, for the first time, evaluate the environmental and economic cost-benefits of reintroducing leys and sheep into arable rotations to improve soil quality in our most intensively cropped areas of eastern England. The project will deliver the evidence-base needed to guide how to use these systems to increase soil organic matter content and improve soil structure and associated hydrological functioning and soil water and nutrient storage. These changes are required to reduce the problems of water pollution, and establish more sustainable crop and livestock production systems. The research is focused on experiments to be conducted with 5 arable farmers in participatory research. We will evaluate the potential benefits of innovative approaches that combine new types of ley and tillage methods. We will study the effects of traditional grass clover-leys, versus new species-rich herbal leys, grazing versus mowing, and conventional tillage versus direct drilling, as tools that in novel combination are hypothesized to be more effective in restoring physical, chemical and biological soil quality than the traditional approaches, and predicted to deliver greater economic and environmental benefits. The research builds on, and extends, current trials supported by the AHDB and National Sheep Association. It will provide a the most comprehensive assessment of soil quality changes from these systems, through detailed sampling and analyseis of soil structure and hydrological functioning, organic carbon and nutrients, together with data on herbage, sheep and crop production, economic and environmental cost-benefits. The project is multiscale from plot-to-field-to-farm-to-catchment-to-landscape and will deploy a range of upscaling modelling tools that will allow the wider effects of reintroducing sheep into arable rotations to be determined to guide policymaking on farm payments for environmental goods and services.

Planned Impact

We have developed a set of pathways to deliver impact from this research to address the industry-challenge- how best to reintroduce livestock into arable rotations to improve soil quality.
The research findings will be directly communicated to SARIC industry club members through written reports, and oral presentations at the annual SARIC meetings. Our proposal has been developed in consultation with leaders of existing AHDB work in this area and we will fully engage with existing AHDB mechanisms for dissemination of our research findings. The research is especially important for the industry club members Anglia Water, and NRM Cawood Scientific with whom we will be collaborating in the development of their soil testing service.
The core outcomes of the project will directly influence a) Farmers, farm managers: benefit through understanding benefits of leys and sheep grazing to restore soil quality under different management practices and soil types; b) seed companies (Cotswold Seeds, Kings) Statutory agencies involved in water and soil conservation (e.g. Natural England, Environment Agency); c) Utility companies involved in water supply, nitrate pollution and management of stormwater and associated sediment discharges e.g. Yorkshire Water; d) households in flood-risk areas where the risks have been increased by loss of arable soil water infiltration and storage capacity; e) Game and Wildlife Conservation, f) The Sustainable Soils Alliance and other organizations such as the Global Soils Partnership seeking to protect soils, g) Government policy makers (DEFRA).
MECHANISMS OF ENGAGEMENT AND IMPACT GENERATION
On-farm demonstrations: The project launch event to which industry-club members, collaborators and farmers will be invited will be run at NIAB Innovation Farm including a visit to the experimental leys to be set up by NIAB in 2018
Knowledge exchange workshops: We will conduct these with farmers at the start (2019), middle (2020) and end (2022) of the project.
Linking Farmers and Environmental Agencies: In Spring 2022 we will run a one day outreach meeting at the GWCT Allerton Project Visitor Center to demonstrate research outcomes, visit ongoing studies of sheep in arable rotations (see LoS) and communicate findings to farmers and farm managers and agencies involved in water and soil conservation.
Sheep Producers: We will publicize our findings to sheep producers through in-kind support of the National Sheep Association publishing articles in their bi-monthly magazine and contributing to their seminar programmes at key NSA events.
Arable Farmers: We will present summary information on finding of the research at NIAB-TAG stand at the annual Cereals Event in the summer of 2022 and at annual June NIAB Open days.
Academics: Submission of manuscripts for publication in high impact and open access peer reviewed journals, associated press releases and conference presentations.
Policymakers. We will communicate through established links with Defra in Demonstration Test Catchments (See letter of support from Defra, who would be willing to consider provision of translational funds in the final year of the project to draw together the results in a policy relevant format in order to maximise the impact of the work). In addition we have a pathway to policy-influence via the Sustainable Soils Alliance and policy briefing notes.
The Public: We will engage with the public through press releases in relation to publication of results; at annual International Science open days and the annual NIAB Festival of Plants events and through the project website and Twitter.
End of Project Knowledge Translation Event: The final project meeting in Autumn 2022 at NIAB innovation Farm will be focused on translation of the project discoveries into practical applications with collaborators and industry club members.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The split-field experiments comparing herbal leys and grass-clover leys have been established at 4 farms, and the herbal ley added into the NIAB STA trial . There is considerable variation between the farms in the establishment and diversity of the species in the herbal leys, and this may be influenced by soil type and grazing management differences. We have conducted base-line soil analyses. Some results of analyses of intestinal parasites in sheep have found evidence of lower parasite load in the herbal ley than the grass-clover ley.
Exploitation Route The results are likely to help inform choice of ley type and management for soil health, sheep production, subsequent crop production and economic benefits- but the findings are too early and incomplete as yet to fully achieve these longer term goals, and the project only in its second year.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

 
Description Written submission from the Sustainable Soils Alliance to Defra consultation on headline indicators for meeting the goals of the 25 year Environment Plan
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact I contributed (as a scientific advisor to the Sustainable Soils Alliance) to the submission made to Defra in advance of their publishing the draft plans for Headline Indicators to be used to monitor progress and meeting goals of the UK government 25 year Environment Plan, making the case for including soil health in the indicators: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58cff61c414fb598d9e947ca/t/5ca36476a4222f9042035c14/1554211960015/SSA-DEFRA+Soils+Workshop+Recommendations_Nov+18.pdf Defra appeared to ignore our recommendations when they published their draft proposals in 2019. I helped draft the submission from the Sustainable Soils Alliance, to the Defra public consultation on their proposals. We (the Science Panel of the Sustainable Soils Alliance) restated the need to include 'Healthy Soils' as a Headline Indicator in the government's draft 25 Year Plan for the Environment, alongside three underlying 'Condition of Assets' indicators. The text of our submissions are mounted and openly available on the Website of the sustainable Soils Alliance. Defra substantially altered their text in the final (post consultation revised) document on indicators to be used to develop the 25 Year Environment plan- with Soil Heath being raised in status to Headline Indicator 8, and no longer linked exclusively to land productivity and private goods, but is now correctly recognized as a "National Asset".
URL https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/8020...
 
Description Written submission to Defra consultation on headline Indicators to be used to deliver the UK Government 25 year Environment Plan.
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact Written submission to Defra (one of 100 submissions to them) challenging the lack of adequate commitment to soil health and soil monitoring in the proposed headline indicators to be used to deliver the 25 year Environment Plan. Soil Health was not proposed as a headline indicator. I argued strongly for giving a higher and correct priority to soils, and their contributions to public goods and services. The outline framework proposed was inconsistent with the goal for all of England's soils to be sustainably managed by 2030. Without the development of soil health indicators and monitoring there was no effective policy developed to (a) assess the current status of soils and (b) monitor changes in soil quality over time- and the stated goals were unachievable and unverifiable. Defra substantially altered their text in the final (post consultation revised) document on indicators to be used to develop the 25 Year Environment plan- with Soil Heath being raised in status to Headline Indicator 8, and no longer linked exclusively to land productivity and private goods, but is now correctly recognized as a "National Asset".
URL https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/8020...
 
Description Contribution to and editiorial corrections of final version of a PostNote to UK Parliament on "Sustaining the soil microbiome". 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The soil microbiome, communities of microorganisms in soils, underpin natural processes in soil habitats and are affected by environmental and land use change. This POSTnote gives an overview of the benefits provided by the soil microbiome, ways of assessing the soil microbiome, and measures to improve its condition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0601#fullreport
 
Description Final stakeholder and knowledge Transfer Meeting jointly for SoilBioHedge and MycoRhizaSoil projects, at Hazlewood Castle 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact This full day meeting attended by our industrial partner from RAGT Seeds, and representative from AHDB, Kings Seeds, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, commercial mycorrhiza inoculum producer (Plantworks), ADAS and local farmers provided an overview of the main research findings from the SoilBioHedge and MycorhizaSoil projects, including a field visit to see some of the experiments. I gave four talks, ending with a policy and practice-focussed synthesis of the findings of the research and which leads into the goals of our SARIC project comnparing grass-clover with species-rich herbal leys. There have been a number of follow-up invitations for me to to give similar presentations, which appear in some of the more recent entries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited Participation in the AHDB NIAB workshop on integrating livestock into arable systems 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Active participation in this workshop- sharing knowledge. Several new contacts sent follow up messages to me. I briefly outlined the goals of the recently funded BBSRC SARIC project I lead on Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations, which builds on the work we have done in MycoRhizaSoil and SoilBioHedge projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited Speaker Soil and Water Management Centre Conference Bicton College Devon 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited conference presentation to farmers, advisors, practitioners and agriculture students at Bicton College, Invitation via AHDB contact who was familiar with my work. I was asked to speak on "Nutrient use efficiency" which incorporated results from the SoilBioHedge and MycoRhizSoil projects showing improvements in soil structure and nitrogen storage under grass-clover leys and the effects on subsequent yields of wheat direct drilled into the ley - under greatly reduced nitrogen fertilizer inputs than conventional farming, whilst achieving near UK average wheat yield.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.soilandwater.org.uk/event-3482519
 
Description Invited Speaker Soil and Water Management Centre Conference Harpur Adams University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk at "Developing & Improving your Soils Conference" . I was invited by recommendation of the AHDB to talk on "Improving nutrient use efficiency". There was a audience of farmers, advisors and students of the University.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.soilandwater.org.uk/event-3474231
 
Description Invited Talk: South Pennine Land Manager Network, Hebden Bridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Under the auspices of iCASP (Yorkhsire Integrated Catchment Solutions), I was invited to give a presentation to the South Pennine Land Manager Network on "Soil carbon management in an age of climate emergency and changing agricultural policy and economics", which drew in part from our work on soil carbon sequestration by grass-clover leys reintroduced into arable rotations in SoilBioHedge and MycoRhizaSoil projects, but also reviewed evidence from a wider body of work published on upland soils, grasslands and effects of tree planting etc, in the context of the UK government plans regarding tree planting and the development of the Environmental Land Management Scheme based on payments for public goods.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited poster presentations and workshop particpation Grass Herbal Leys Farm Network 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited poster presentation and participation in the AHDB funded Grass Herbal Leys Farm Network. We presented evidence of the key changes in soil health brought about by leys and showcased the ongoing studies we are conducting comparing grass-clover and herbal leys under grazing and mowing. We visited the field demonstration and assisted with interpreting the changes in soil biology and functions under rotations that have now included leys- including how this impacts earthworm populations and activities leading to improved soil structure.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Invited presentation (Poster and soil monolith demonstration) at the Oxford Garming Conference, UKRI Innovation Hub 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact UKRI Innovation Hub 1 at the Oxford Farming Conference. I presented a poster and demonstrated to the participants in this event the role of grass-clover leys in improving soil health in intensively cultivated permanent arable landnd. Monoliths of soil taken from the field clearly showed the major improvements in soil structure achieved by a 3 year ley. The presentation resulted in a question later being asked at the conference by one of the participants at this event who was impressed by the clear evidence of the societal benefits of the leys. He directly asked the Defra Director General for Food, Farming and Biosecurity about providing support for reintegrating leys into arable rotations- specifically mentioning the evidence of our work, in a question and answer session session at which about half the conference participants were present.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.ofc.org.uk/conference/2020/programme
 
Description Invited speaker and workshop participant at the Oxford Real Farming Conference: Agricology "Know your soils" workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented key findings on soil multifunctionality and key measures of soil health based on the work done in SoilBioHedge and MycoRhizaSoil and a synthesis of sustainable soil management generated for the Soil Security Programme Outcomes Event. The workshop filled the room to capacity and had a lively and engaged audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://orfc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/ORFC-Agricology-Soils-Final-2020-0701.pdf
 
Description Invited talk: Sermon at St Timothy's Church Crookes, Hope For Creation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The invited talk explained the theological basis for sustainable soil and environmental management and ethics of human environment interactions. It drew on some of the work we have conducted on soil quality and its biological recovery under reduced intensity management such as reintroducing leys into arable rotations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.sttims.org.uk/sermons/2019-09-22/?player=audio
 
Description SARIC Winter 2018 Dissemination Event 10th October 2018 Manchester 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Overview of the project "Restoring soil quality through re-integration of leys and sheep into arable rotations" by Jonathan Leake to the SARIC Industry-Club members and to the other researchers and invited stakeholders and funders of the club.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Written submission from the Sustainable Soils Alliance to Defra consultation on headline indicators for meeting the goals of the 25 year Environment Plan 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I contributed (as a scientific advisor to the Sustainable Soils Alliance) to the submission made to Defra in advance of their publishing the draft plans for Headline Indicators to be used to monitor progress and meeting goals of the UK government 25 year Environment Plan, making the case for including sioil health in the indicators: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58cff61c414fb598d9e947ca/t/5ca36476a4222f9042035c14/1554211960015/SSA-DEFRA+Soils+Workshop+Recommendations_Nov+18.pdf
Defra appeared to ignore our recommendations when they published their draft proposals in 2019.
I helped draft the submission from the Sustainable Soils Alliance, to the Defra public consultation on their proposals. We (the Science Panel of the Sustainable Soils Alliance) restated the need to include 'Healthy Soils' as a Headline Indicator in the government's draft 25 Year Plan for the Environment, alongside three underlying 'Condition of Assets' indicators. The text of our submissions are mounted and openly available on the Website of the sustainable Soils Alliance.

Defra substantially altered their text in the final (post consultation revised) document on indicators to be used to develop the 25 Year Environment plan- with Soil Heath being raised in status to Headline Indicator 8, and no longer linked exclusively to land productivity and private goods, but is now correctly recognized as a "National Asset".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58cff61c414fb598d9e947ca/t/5ca362828165f5ff06964ad5/155421146...
 
Description Written submission to Defra Consultation on headline indicators for delivery of the 25 year Environment Plan from Jonathan Leake 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact In response to the Defra consultation on the 25 year Environment plan in January 2019 I submitted a written report drawing attention to deficiencies in the structure, definitions and order of the draft headline indicators, and provided scientific advice on how these could be improved . My primary concern was that soil health was not properly prioritized and was incorrectly presented only under the headline "production and harvesting of natural resources", which fails to reflect its role in underpinning and delivering a wide range of essential public goods and services. Soil does far more than support farm production, and whilst it is important that our cropland soils are more sustainably managed in future, it is also critical that all of our soils are properly protected and their contributions to environmental goods and services maintained and enhanced not only in the context of production and harvesting.
We await the next draft of the Defra proposals to see how they respond.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Written submission to Defra consultation on headline indicators for meeting the goals of the 25 year Environment Plan 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact My formal written submission to Defra (one of 100 submissions to them) highlighted the inconsistency in the proposal to only consider soil as private goods, and the lack of adequate commitment to soil health and soil monitoring in the proposed headline indicators to be used to deliver the 25 year Environment Plan. Soil Health was not proposed as a headline indicator. I argued strongly for giving a higher and correct priority to soils, and their contributions to public goods and services. The outline framework proposed was inconsistent with the goal for all of England's soils to be sustainably managed by 2030. Without the development of soil health indicators and monitoring there was no effective policy developed to (a) assess the current status of soils and (b) monitor changes in soil quality over time- and the stated goals were unachievable and unverifiable.
Defra substantially altered their text In the final (post consultation revised) document on indicators to be used to develop the 25 Year Environment plan- with Soil Heath being raised in status to Headline Indicator 8, and no longer linked exclusively to land productivity and private goods, but is now correctly recognized as a "National Asset".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/8020...