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Haymaking is critical to our heritage meadows, but is later really better?

Updated Friday, 1st May 2020

Meadows are not just about wildflowers, they’re also about hay as an agricultural crop. But they don’t make it like they used to. PhD student, Vicky Bowskill, explains how researching seasonal changes in the nutritional content of hay can help conserve the UK's precious species-rich floodplain meadows.

farmers in a field haymaking in the early 1900s Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Author's own image Haymaking in the early 1900s, newspaper cutting from my grandmother's scrapbooks. farmers on a tractor haymaking during the 1950s post-war agricultural revolution Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Author's own image Haymaking during the 1950s post-war agricultural revolution. My grandfather and great grandfather, both war veterans, working a small family farm in Sussex. Tractor in a field by a lake Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: @pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-jalwm Contemporary haymaking working on a much larger scale.

Meadow species are uniquely adapted to the annual cycle of summer hay cutting and aftermath grazing that has been shaping them for centuries. Since World War II, some 97% of our precious wildflower meadows have been lost, due to agricultural intensification, land use change and development.

Floodplain meadows are especially diverse with up to 40 plant species per square metre, supporting a wide range of invertebrates, birds, mammals and reptiles. But this astonishing display would have been unremarkable to farmers of my grandparent’s generation and earlier. Floodplain meadows have long been valued as a low-input, naturally fertile farm resource and species-rich hay can still provide a wide range of nutrients and medicinal compounds for pasture-fed livestock.

brown calf grass field Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: @Pickpik lamb sheep meadow Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: @Pixabay_AlgraRia / 737 images

Livestock grazed on species-rich meadows may enjoy better health owing to a wide range of natural antibiotic and antiparasitic compounds produced by meadow herbs.

The timing of haymaking is a critical part of successful meadow management that is governed by the vagaries of weather and seasons. Modern haymaking has a very different impact on sensitive meadow species, with hay often cut later and machinery allowing large areas to be covered much more quickly. However, there is controversy over the timing of hay cutting:

  • Date restrictions under agri-environment schemes designed for conservation gains often conflict with other agricultural management goals.
  • A later cut is perceived to make a lower quality crop, though this is based on limited data for species-rich floodplain meadows.
  • Missed hay cuts mean rising soil nutrients and falling botanical diversity.

hay in a field. Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: @Pixabay_Alicja_ / 2556 images But is later-cut hay really of lower nutritional value? And is the delay really critical for long term conservation goals? There is a need for more data about how the nutritional content of hay changes during the growing season between May and September to properly balance the production of a hay crop with biodiversity gains.

My study will be gathering this data from three floodplain meadows in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, looking specifically at changes in nutritional minerals and anthelmintic compounds that can help to combat parasitic gut worms and reduce reliance on pharmaceutical drugs. A mixed methods design will also look at the acceptability of different approaches to the timing of haymaking to different stakeholders. A questionnaire has already been completed by over one hundred land managers to help inform my fieldwork and more in-depth interviews will follow later.

With a changing policy landscape and focus on sustainable food production, now is the time to see how hay meadows can fit into a sustainable, nature-friendly farming future.

The hay cycle on floodplain meadows: 
1. Rising soil nutrients lead to a fall in botanical diversity. Removing a summer hay crop is a good way to remove nutrients from the meadow. This balances nutrients deposited by flooding.
2.Aftermath grazing takes place in the autumn.
3.Flooding mainly occurs in the winter but can happen at any time of the year. Flooding deposits nutrient-rich silts that enrich soils.
4.Meadows are closed up when the ground gets too wet for grazing and to allow plants to grow when spring arrives.
5.Increasing sunshine drives plant growth once temperature rise above about 4.5oC. 
6.Plant growth transfers nutrients from the soil into plant tissues.
7.Meadow species such as plants, insects and ground nesting birds, carry out their life cycle during the spring and summer – feeding and reproducing. Meanwhile the nutritional content of the growing hay crop peaks and starts to decline after flowering as seeds are produced.
8.Land managers need to balance the timing of hay cutting to produce a nutritious hay crop and manage soil nutrients, whilst looking after populations of threatened meadow species. Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Author's own image Haymaking is part of the annual management cycle for meadows. Mowing must be timed to balance the production of a nutritous hay crop, manage soil nutrients and look after populations of threatened species.

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The hay cycle on floodplain meadows: 

1. Rising soil nutrients lead to a fall in botanical diversity. Removing a summer hay crop is a good way to remove nutrients from the meadow. This balances nutrients deposited by flooding.

2. Aftermath grazing takes place in the autumn.

3. Flooding mainly occurs in the winter but can happen at any time of the year. Flooding deposits nutrient-rich silts that enrich soils.

4. Meadows are closed up when the ground gets too wet for grazing and to allow plants to grow when spring arrives.

5. Increasing sunshine drives plant growth once temperature rise above about 4.5oC. 

6. Plant growth transfers nutrients from the soil into plant tissues.

7. Meadow species such as plants, insects and ground nesting birds, carry out their life cycle during the spring and summer – feeding and reproducing. Meanwhile the nutritional content of the growing hay crop peaks and starts to decline after flowering as seeds are produced.

8. Land managers need to balance the timing of hay cutting to produce a nutritious hay crop and manage soil nutrients, whilst looking after populations of threatened meadow species.

This research is supported by the Floodplain Meadows Partnership and you can find out more about what makes floodplains so special at http://www.floodplainmeadows.org.uk/

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