Growing grass for seed has been part of the rotation for 60 years at Lodge Farm, Westhorpe, Suffolk. And the contribution it makes to soil health, the farmed environment and profitability is as important now as it was in 1961.
Today, the 530ha family farm is run by cousins Patrick and Brian Barker. But their fathers, David and Roy respectively, remain important members of the team. And their enthusiasm for biodiversity and growing grass seed stretches across the generations.
It was out of concern for soil that the Barker family first grew grass seed – soon after Eric Barker took on the farm in 1957. Six decades later, their whole farm ecosystem approach means Lodge Farm is a demonstration farm for LEAF, Linking Farming and the Environment.
Sticky when wet
David explains: “We’re on Beccles series clay – very sticky when wet – and we were dragging trailers through a sea of mud, ruining the soil. ‘That’s the last time we grow sugar beet,’ my father said.”
In the early years, the Barkers grew seed for Goldsmith Seeds, which had a seed cleaning plant in nearby Bury St Edmunds. By the early 1980s, grass seed breeder and producer Barenbrug had bought out Goldsmith’s and set up a UK division.
At first, the Barkers grew agricultural varieties, mainly Aberystwyth S23 perennial ryegrass and S215 meadow fescue. Then they dabbled in Cocksfoot, Timothy and Red Fescue before switching to finer leaved and greener amenity grasses for sport and landscaping.
The family continues to supply Barenbrug today. It is one of 55 UK farmers growing a total of 3000t of seed – 75% of the compant’s UK’s requirement – for agriculture and amenity use.
Advances in machinery
In the early days, grass was cut with a finger bar mower before it was harvested using up to three combines fitted with Draper-type pick-up headers – a slow, dusty operation, which was eventually replaced by direct combining.
In wet conditions, the grass would get stuck and hours would be spent pulling out the blockage. But the real breakthrough
came with the Shelbourne Reynolds stripper header, manufactured just a few miles away at Stanton.
With this method, the seed is stripped from the living plant and very little grass stalk goes through the combine, improving daily output and reducing fuel usage. The grass can be mown after combining and sold as horse hay.
Grass seed gains most of its weight in the final 10 days of maturity in the field, so timing of harvest is key to yield, quality and income, says Brian. “As it comes in, we need to reduce temperature and moisture as quickly as possible to protect quality and germination.
Invested in on-farm infrastructure helps achieve this at the start of the busy harvest period. Once the seed is dry, it is heaped up and dressed following autumn cultivations and drilling. “When we started growing grass seed, it was never cleaned,” says Roy. “We’d turn it by hand to dry it, sack it up and send it off to the merchant.”
When Ipswich seed merchant Harold Sadd’s Seeds ceased trading in 1967, David and Roy’s father went to the company’s premises, and offered £100 for the seed cleaning apparatus. That’s the equipment still used on the farm today.
Grass is a valuable two-year break crop among the wheat, barley, beans and oilseed rape grown on the farm. Worm counts are healthy, soil structure is improved and nitrates are soaked up. The crop is undersown into spring barley.
“We direct drill the spring barley and grass seed into last year’s wheat stubble in March,” says David. “The barley is then harvested leaving the grass to develop ready for the following harvest.”
By not ploughing at this point in the rotation, moisture is conserved in the soil and grass plants are stronger going into winter. It pays dividends later too, with varieties yielding around 1.25t/ha.
“We go for spring sowing to give us two bites of the cherry: if grass hasn’t taken well can cut more seed in in September, whereas if we only start sowing in September, there’s the risk of slugs, and we might encourage blackgrass and other weeds.”
Agronomy advice is on hand from Helen Southall of Herbage Seed Services. Growers agree a participation contract with Barenbrug UK based on estimated yields, and receive payments throughout the year.
Boost for biodiversity
Growing grass is also great for wildlife. It means the farm is green all year round, adding a completely different habitat in the rotation, providing food sources, breeding sites and nesting habitat for all sorts of wildlife.
These include brown hares, roe deer, barn owls, skylarks, meadow pippets, kestrels, buzzards – as well as grey partridge, which is a target species under the farm’s Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Patrick says: “It’s the modern equivalent of traditional rotations, when large parts of every farm were grazed by horses and livestock. The grass delivers huge benefits to the farm and the wider ecosystem.”