2022 has so far been the UK’s warmest year on record and its driest in 26 years. Some people may consider this weather a nice change from our traditionally rainy climate but with some areas of England receiving less than 50% of their usual summer rainfall and Wales just 36% of their usual August rainfall, farmers are not among them (Met Office, 2022).
Using AMP grazing, we have been able to sustain enough growth to feed the cattle all summer without spending money buying in feed, without damaging our grass growth rates and we have still been able produce hay bales from our SSSI meadows ready for the winter.
Traditionally, summer is a time for productivity on a farm with farmers able to leave livestock in the fields to graze whilst they produce hay bales for the additional feed required during winter. However, this year, due to the drought and corresponding poor grass growth, some farmers have been forced to dip in to their winter reserves since mid-summer. This has reduced their feedstock left for winter months and now, many farmers will be preparing for a winter of buying expensive feed and forage.
However, not all farms were affected equally. In landscapes of brown, dead fields, some green paddocks remained. Oxfordshire was recorded as one of the driest areas in England this summer but FAI’s Oxford farm remained functioning throughout this drought whilst neighbouring farms turned brown (see figure 1). The difference was management technique. For the past 4 years, we have been transitioning the farm to adaptive multi-paddock grazing, which also enables us to successfully outwinter cattle.
Figure 1: Grass from our grazed fields (left) and a neighbour's field who follows conventional, non-regenerative practices (right). Photos taken on the same day at the end of August, 2022 with the permission of land owners.
AMP grazing involves restricting the cattle’s access to the forage by moving the cattle daily between small cells of 0.5 hectares. The cattle graze approximately 25% of the available forage in spring, 50% during summer and up to 75% in autumn before being moved to the next cell. In practice, the cattle are kept in each cell for around a day. When <50% of a plant is grazed, root growth continues normally but by grazing 70% of the grass, root growth is significantly impacted and when 90% of a plant is grazed, all root growth will stop for 17 days (dependent on species and variety) (Figure 2). Therefore, by limiting the time cattle spend in a cell, root growth is not significantly impacted by grazing.
Long plant roots are not only able to access water reserves found deeper in the soil in times of drought but also create channels to aid water infiltration, so that the soil can store more water during bouts of rain to replenish and increase these reserves. The roots additionally release various compounds into the soil through exudation which creates a beneficial environment for soil microbes which inhibit plant pathogens and increase the nutrient and carbon cycling in the soil. These functions benefit the plants in the soil and increase the creation and storage of soil carbon which, in turn, increases water infiltration and storage in the soil for better resilience to drought events. In our July 2022 Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) report, FAI’s water infiltration rate was assessed as “Very high” (the highest classification level) across all samples in all fields measured.
Roots are not the only factor of AMP grazing involved in drought resistance. By leaving longer lengths of grass, grass stalks are bent and trampled which provide protection to the undergrowth. This creates a cooler, moist area on the soil surface which enables continued productivity of soil microbes which die at high temperatures. The additional ground cover also reduces water lost through evaporation and runoff associated with hardened, bare soil whilst additionally creating habitats for microfauna which help cycle additional nutrients through the soil.
Using AMP grazing, we have been able to sustain enough growth to feed the cattle all summer without spending money buying in feed, without damaging our grass growth rates and we have still been able produce hay bales from our SSSI meadows ready for the winter. Even throughout the drought, the cattle have continued to do well without any high energy licks or concentrated feeds; putting on more than a kilogram of liveweight a day. Additionally, as water and nutrient availability are key for the soil’s ability to accrue and sequester carbon, drought-resilient soil has the potential to lock away more carbon to help reduce farm carbon footprint and environmental impact (Jansson & Hofmockel, 2020).
The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology warns that despite the rain seen since the onset of Autumn, parts of the country could remain in drought conditions into 2023. This is because the drought depleted reservoirs and dried out groundwater levels to such an extent that the wet autumn has not been enough to revive water resources. Scientists continue to publish record lows in river flows with some areas recording less than a third of their average for this time of year and upturn flows are “nowhere near” those seen for previous droughts. Groundwater and soil moisture levels have also been showing record lows particularly in Southern England (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, 2022). With 4 out of the 5 warmest English summers on record occurring since 2003 it seems likely that droughts will become more commonplace in England and the UK (Met Office, 2022). Therefore, the importance of practices like AMP grazing for farm resilience and continued productivity will continue to grow as the climate crisis progresses.
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Figure 3: Our cattle continuing to graze in late August in yellowed but still productive fields.
With 4 out of the 5 warmest English summers on record occurring since 2003 it seems likely that droughts will become more commonplace in England and the UK (Met Office, 2022). Therefore, the importance of practices like AMP grazing for farm resilience and continued productivity will continue to grow as the climate crisis progresses.
Jansson, J. K., & Hofmockel, K. S. (2020). Soil microbiomes and climate change. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 18(1), 35-46.
Met Office (2022) Joint hottest summer on record for England. Available at: Joint hottest summer on record for England - Met Office (Accessed: September 6th 2022).
UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (2022). Why we are still in drought despite recent rain. Available at: Why we are still in drought despite recent rain | UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (ceh.ac.uk) (Accessed: October 27th 2022).
eLearning: Foundations of Regenerative Agriculture
It starts with you
This course is the perfect starting point for anyone looking to learn more about one of the most promising potential solutions to biodiversity loss and global warming. Through an interactive online learning you will better understand the challenges and opportunities of regenerative agriculture.
We explain how leveraging ecological principles and processes can move us towards food production practices that build resilience while at the same time producing the highest quality, nutrient-dense and delicious foods.