Grassland SFI opportunities explored

Livestock farmers have been encouraged to make the most of opportunities provided by the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) improved grassland soils standard ...

The scheme, launched in 2022, is one of several being rolled out within the government’s transition from direct support towards measures targeted towards soils, the environment and ‘public good’.

“There is a good opportunity from the SFI, and farmers are already doing a lot of what’s required, so it’s nice they can get recognition for that,” Charlie I’Anson of Yorkshire-based I’Anson Farm Feeds told a recent farmer meeting, organised jointly with Hutchinsons.

“The aim of the meeting was to supply farmers with information on a topic many aren’t too clear about, and help them get the most out of the scheme.”

Recognising good practice

The SFI improved grassland soils standard has two levels, introductory and intermediate, with an advanced option expected in 2023. Each level has several requirements to qualify for a payment over the agreement’s three years (see table).

“There haven’t been decent grassland options available in the Countryside Stewardship scheme, so it’s encouraging the SFI rewards the good farming practice many improved dairy and beef grassland farms are already doing,” Hutchinsons Will Foyle said.

At the introductory level, Hutchinsons colleague Matthew Powell explained farmers were required to carry out four key measures, namely:

  1. Assess soils and form a soil management plan. Review regularly to identify issues and remedial actions (e.g. surface pooling due to compaction addressed with methodical use of roots and targeted cultivations)
  2. Test soil organic matter (tests must have been done within five years)
  3. Apply organic matter to every parcel in the agreement at least once in three years
  4. Maintain 95% overwinter cover (1 December–28 February), so no more than 5% can be bare ground, including poached land.

The intermediate level included all of the above, plus a requirement for a diverse sward containing herbs and legumes, to be established on 15% of land within 12 months, he added.

“All grass is eligible, unless it’s completely unimproved for over 15 years. For this, an unimproved grassland option is due for later release.”

Mr Powell said SFI rules were less prescriptive than the CSS, with no defined species mix or composition. “It can include a mixture of grasses, legumes, and herbs, could be reseeded or overseeded, and you can maintain an existing herbal ley to meet the requirement.”

Also, the eligible area could be moved around the farm.

Grass and clover was highlighted as the main option for livestock farmers, however, having more species in a sward, made optimising harvest timings crucial, particularly to reduce the risk of lignification, Mr I’Anson noted.

Red clover was particularly good for improving daily liveweight gain in fat lambs, but farmers needed to be aware of potential fertility issues in breeding ewes, so only use it as grazing mix for fattening offspring. He also suggested considering other home-grown sources of protein in mixes.

Mr Foyle added that higher fertiliser costs, and greater focus on reducing the carbon footprint of imported soya-based feeds, further strengthened the importance of home-grown protein.

Digital mapping helps compliance

Farmers heard how the onus would be on them to maintain evidence of compliance with SFI requirements.

Hutchinsons digital services specialist, Chris Blashill, said this was where Omnia could help, as the Field Manager level included all the templates and functionality needed to record and administer SFI.

“Additionally, farmers can get extra value by having better soil analysis, creating tailored application plans for organic and inorganic fertiliser, and produce reports to help with Red Tractor or NVZ compliance.”

The Omnia Scout app also provided an easy way of recording sward condition, to help demonstrate compliance.

There was an opportunity to use SFI requirements as the catalyst for more in-depth soil analysis too, by undertaking Healthy Soils, or TerraMap analysis, which provided far more accurate and detailed information than basic testing.

“There are instances where we’ve TerraMapped farms and paid for the service in the first year through savings on lime where pH has been wrong,” Mr Foyle noted.

Do the sums

Mr Foyle acknowledged SFI uptake had been low thus far, partly because some farmers viewed the payment as too small.

However, it was important to understand that unlike previous CSS options, which were paid on land directly put into that option, SFI payments were available across all eligible hectares entered into the standard, even if the action only had to be completed on a percentage of that land.

So, for a hypothetical 100 ha farm, if 15 ha was put into a CSS GS4 legume and herb-rich sward, the £358/ha payment only applied to that 15 ha. However, putting 15% of the farm into a grass/clover sward under SFI, meant £58/ha was paid across the whole 100 ha.

“On the face of it, the SFI payment looks less, but when you do the maths and understand how the payment is calculated, it’s worth more.”

He added that the SFI’s launch represented a direction of travel for future support. “Next year there will be other standards coming in for nutrient management, IPM and hedgerows. We don’t know what these will involve yet, but it’s likely there’ll be more payments available for other things many farmers are doing already.”

Manures update

The SFI requirement to add organic matter was also addressed at the meeting, particularly its interaction with Defra’s Farming Rules for Water, which placed various restrictions on OM applications.

Hutchinsons Louis Williams said there had been some changes from government this year, in response to industry concerns.

The autumn crop requirement was scrapped, meaning that farmers could once again apply manures ahead of winter cereals, provided there was no significant risk of pollution, he said.

Phosphate restrictions were also updated, so that farmers may be able to apply manures to land, even where phosphate index exceeds target, where:

  1. You produce and apply your own organic manure and cannot reasonably avoid this
  2. You import organic manure as part of an integrated fertiliser system
  3. You have taken all reasonable precautions to help mitigate against diffuse pollution

Grassland SFI requirements

Introductory Intermediate
Payment £28/ha £58/ha
Assess soil Y Y
Produce soil management plan Y Y
Test organic matter Y Y
Overwinter green cover 95% 95%
Add organic matter Y Y
Establish and maintain herbal leys N/A Y (15%)

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