Farmers collaborate with Wij.Land to develop more resilient farming methods to the Western Peat Meadows. They come together to collectively learn how best to introduce such techniques. Recently, they met to learn more about the benefits and techniques of herb-rich grasslands.
A group of 25 farmers crowd around a hole in the ground. They are watching Peter Takens – a sustainable farming advisor – demonstrate the rooting capacity of Ribwort Plantain. Crouching in long, green grass, Peter explains how such herbs retain water and cycle minerals from below the surface. He tells how herbs support biodiversity and improve livestock health. Everyone listens on, with Peter’s explanation interrupted by eager questions.
The farmers are all part of Wij.land’s herb-rich grassland pilot. And today they are at the farm of Ben Verklij to attend a practical workshop to learn a different way of managing a peat meadow landscape for dairy farming.
Herb-rich grasslands: reintroducing a century-old technique
The Western Peat Meadows is an agricultural landscape bordering major Dutch cities like Amsterdam, Utrecht and Haarlem. All grasslands in the peat meadows were managed as herb-rich around one hundred years ago. Yet agricultural industrialization led to changes in management. Farmers moved towards intensive fertilization and a focus on productive grasses. Today, many farmers cultivate monoculture grasslands of ryegrass: a plant with high nutritional value and which is resistant against trampling (it’s used a lot in football fields). Herb-rich grasslands are now the exception rather than the norm.
This is leading to problems for farmers. Intensive grassland management is not capable of withstanding dry summers and periods of drought. Loss of diverse herb areas reduce insect numbers and consequently meadow bird populations. Meanwhile Dutch farmers struggle to balance increasing demands for production from the private sector with calls from society and government to become more sustainable. All this threatens the livelihoods of farmers in the peat meadow landscape.
Before we went out into the field to listen to Peter, everyone was gathered in the barn for a set of presentations. Ben Verklij began with a story of seeing healthy pasture flourishing while on holiday in Friesland. “When I saw with my own eyes in the dry summer of 2018 that herb-rich plots remained green while grass plots dried out”, Ben describes, “I became motivated to make my own land herb-rich as well”.
Managing a herb-rich grassland offers many advantages. Diverse herbs growing together – like plantain, chamomile, chicory – improve soil structure, build soil health and increase water retention. There are benefits for biodiversity below and above ground. Diverse herbs sequester more carbon than monoculture cultivation. Cattle can access increased availability of vitamins and nutrition through diverse herbs, potentially leading to healthier animals and a higher quality of milk.
When managed well, herb-rich grasslands lead to more resilient farming – critical for changing climates. In the long-term farmers save money through less reliance on imported feed, input chemicals and reduced veterinary bills for their cattle. And in the future, carbon and biodiversity subsidies may offer farmers diversified income streams.
Yet even though managing herb-rich grasslands is a centuries old technique, its current application in dairy farming is still in its infancy.
Learning and innovation
That’s why Wij.land offer a herb-rich grassland trajectory for farmers to experiment and receive support in transforming their pastures into herb-rich grasslands. The trajectory involves piloting, monitoring and practical workshops. After two years, there are now 24 farmers experimenting across 75 hectares.
Monitoring is an important element of the program. Different methods of introducing herbs are tested. The herb and grass species are counted, grass height and soil compactness are measured. And the impact on biodiversity is measured by counting below-ground soil life and collecting moths overnight – which are very sensitive to environmental changes.
What is becoming clear is that introducing herb-rich grasslands on an area that has been managed intensively for decades cannot be done overnight. Fertiliser use has increased nitrogen levels in the ground, and farmers must literally change the soil composition in order to create the right environment for herbs to grow.
According to Matthijs Boeschoten, Program Leader at Wij.land, “it is challenging for herbs introduced on peat meadows to outcompete grass”. There is no simple solution, yet as Matthijs describes, “we also see that it works. But you really have to customize the management depending on the context. We try to understand how it works best depending on the farming operation, and to learn”.
There is still monitoring and research needed on further ecological aspects like carbon sequestration and water retention. As well as the impact herb-rich grasslands have on cow health and milk quality. Yet a diversity of forage for cattle is an idea that farmer Tom Scheeres already thinks will have a benefit, “I don’t need a peanut butter sandwich every moment of the day, so I think the cow also likes to eat something else sometimes and that’s why I want to give it to them.”
Growing group of enthusiastic farmers
Back to where Peter explains the benefit of Ribwort Plantain, farmers begin in threes and fours to talk amongst themselves. There is a curiosity amongst the group and a clear willingness to learn. They talk of their own experiences and challenge each other’s ideas. These are farmers that truly want to make a positive impact on the landscape and strive to find the best way. The enthusiasm is obvious; indeed there are 20 more farmers joining Wij.land’s herb-rich grassland trajectory. Collectively, this group are progressing the knowledge of what is possible in a peat meadow landscape. And everyone is looking forward to the next year’s results of herb-rich grassland.
Follow the link for more information (in Dutch) on Wij.land’s pilot on herb-rich grasslands.