Grass – the original sustainable crop

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Familiar to us all in parks and gardens, Brits seem to have a love-hate relationship with grass. Lovely to picnic on, gentle on bare feet, it also needs constant mowing and often grows annoyingly where it shouldn’t.

What’s so special about grass?

It happens to be incredibly important to farmers.  Grass is a valuable food for animals, grown in fields as ‘pasture’. In a normal wet-and-sunny British summer, cows and sheep munch happily in fields of grass to their heart’s content. And one of the best things about grass is – it  just keeps growing! As long as the temperature is above 5°C, grass will start to grow, and it will continue to do so unless the temperature exceeds 32°C. The only things it really needs are light and water. Grass can pretty much grow anywhere – and does.

Another great thing about grass is – it’s cheap to grow.

 

 

 

Looking after grass

In modern farming systems, grass isn’t just allowed to grow any-old-how.  Grasslands are tended like any other crop. So every time the fields are mowed, they get a dose of fertiliser afterwards, mainly nitrogen, to make sure the grass keeps growing healthily.

But in many other agricultural systems in the world, such as sheep farming in remote regions, nothing is added to the grass yet it still seems to grow surprisingly well.  Recent research has suggested that grass roots have a nitrogen-fixing ability, like the roots of legumes (beans and peas). In other words, the plants work with soil bacteria to produce their own fertiliser.  You can read more about this here:

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Farm grass isn’t the same as your lawn

There are lots of different varieties of grass, many of which have been specifically bred over decades to make good animal feed. Farmers tend to buy a mixture of different grass seeds depending on the type of soil they have, the amount of rainfall they expect and what the grass will be used for – for instance, dairy or beef cattle.

What is it used for?

In the UK, long day-length together with sunshine and rain in May, June and July, means the grass grows at an enormous rate.  If it’s not being grazed by animals, grass has its “first cut” in May or June; it’s left to dry in the field for a few days before being baled to become hay or silage – animal fodder (feed) for winter.

 

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Usually a second cut can be taken a few weeks later; in a good year, farmers may even get a third crop, which means they can store lots of fodder for the cold months when grass doesn’t grow.  Some farmers use the hay or silage for their own animals, others sell it to cattle or sheep farmers.

So – grass is truly amazing.  Which is why it’s the subject of my first ‘Basics’ blog post.  

Because most farming would be impossible without it.

 

Q&A

How much grassland is there in the UK?

About two thirds of UK agricultural land is grassland, in total about 11.73 million hectares (29 million acres).  This doesn’t include rough grazing land of about 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres).

How important are grasslands worldwide?

Grasslands total 3.5 billion hectares across the world, more than twice the total area dedicated to crops.

They play a huge role, not only as grazing land for animals, but also in helping to regulate climate, in nutrient cycling, water storage, pollination, erosion control and biodiversity.  

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