Herbal leys have a long historical use and research has found potential in plants, such as chicory as a prebiotic to help reduce gastro-intestinal disease in farm animals. Here at Treeopia we don’t fertilize our meadows with nitrogen or feed our cattle with high protein man made pellet feeds our mixed ley meadows. Instead we spray with liquid seaweed and our cattle are grass fed. It seems herbal leys are regaining their popularity – Yet this is all we have being doing since we started our herd of Traditional Herefords 20 years ago.
If you have been into the countryside this summer, you might have caught a glimpse of a herd of cattle up to their hocks in brightly coloured flowers. This may have been one of a small, but growing number of farmers planting their fields down to “herbal leys”.
Before the arrival of chemical fertilizers most farmers sowed their pastures – not just with grasses – but with other pasture plants as well such as clovers and deep-rooting herbs like plantain and chicory. It’s one of the reasons summer meadows used to be such colourful – and noisy – places. Their bright, scented flowers attract a host of pollinating insects such as butterflies and bees.
Farmers planted these species-rich pastures because the diverse plant mixtures were known to provide nutritious grazing for cattle and sheep. They also helped to enrich the soil, providing a bank of fertility that could be cashed in when the meadow was eventually ploughed up and planted with wheat or barley.
Following the introduction of nitrate fertilizers, these mixed-species pastures fell from fashion. Generations of farmers have grown up believing that the most productive grazing fields are made up of a single grass species heavily dosed with chemical fertilizers.
However, as fertilizer prices have gone up and farm prices have come under mounting pressure, a number of farmers are re-discovering the benefits of the mixed-species pasture. This is full of clovers and herbs, as well as grasses, and sometimes known as a “herbal ley”. Among them is a certain Adam Macy of Home Farm, and now Pip of the Ambridge radio soap.
These colourful meadow mixes have many benefits for livestock farmers. The deep-rooting herbs bring up trace elements from the lower soil horizons, making the vegetation highly-nutritious. After a monotonous diet of grass, cattle and sheep enjoy grazing on these mixed pastures. Some American farmers refer to them as “salad bars” for livestock.
Herbal leys are also good for soils. With their dense root systems they feed soil microbes with sugars – or exudates – produced in plant cells using the energy captured in photosynthesis. In this way, these herbal leys help build up soil fertility, by capturing carbon from the atmosphere and transferring it to the soil. Home Farm are sowing herbal ley to help restore life to damaged soil.
Wherever these flower-filled pastures appear, there’ll be real benefits for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. And that will be good news for the countryside and good news for our Traditional Hereford Cattle and the guests of our treehouse. No nasty chemicals are spread at Treeopia We also wait until our mixed ley seed heads have fallen before cutting for winter fodder, self-seeding the soil with a fresh mixed ley.