Innovative Farmers is part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme. The network is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and backed by a team from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association.


Farmers and researchers collaborate: field lab will explore how to best manage herbal leys for optimal diversity

A group of farmers is exploring the best management of bespoke herbal ley mixes for dairy grazing, in a new Innovative Farmers field lab.

The farmers are interested in the potential of using leys to improve livestock resilience by home-growing nutrients. They are working with a researcher to design and implement on-farm experiments; an example of collaborative grass-roots research, as featured on Sunday’s Countryfile.

Chris Freeth, a farmer involved in the trials, explained: “Ultimately, as farmers, we want to build resilience and one of the ways we do that is by experimenting and adapting to make sure we are farming in the best way we can. We are confident that there are benefits to the herbal leys we’re using on-farm, but we’re basing that confidence on our own observations and assumptions. That’s why we decided to run a field lab; hopefully it will give us valuable results to show what we’re doing is working, and it will help us improve our approach going forward. It’s more difficult to achieve that just by ourselves, but we can do it with the support of the field lab.”

Herbal leys have a long historical use and research has found potential in plants, such as chicory as a prebiotic and legumes containing tannin to help reduce gastro-intestinal disease. Added potential benefits can include improving soil structure through deep rooting, or increasing protein content and nitrogen fixation.

To ensure analyses are robust field labs have input from research institutions, and this group is working with Dr Anna Thomson from the University of Reading. She commented: “Because the farmers are immersed in the research, the benefits for them are immediate and broad. Participants in this group have differing amounts of prior experience in using herbal leys: bringing them together to share in the research experience means they can learn from each other and from the trials, and each of them can use the results in a way that is most constructive for them.”

Innovative Farmers field labs put farmers in the driving seat of research, with participants shaping trials to ensure they are seeking answers to the right questions. For this field lab – which is being sponsored by BBSRC – the group will be using different lengths of grazing period to establish the ideal duration for maintaining diversity and longevity of the sward. They will also assess the diversity of species, the weight of forage produced and its nutritional content to determine what is the best grazing approach for their farm.

Kate Still, Farming Adviser at the Soil Association, is coordinating the field lab. She said: “Most of the farmers in this group have been working with herbal leys for a number of years. But they want to understand how to manage them to get the very best high nutrient sward throughout the season. Optimising species composition, forage regrowth and sward longevity is crucial, and then understanding the nutritional content of the forage their cows are grazing.”

There remains uncertainty over the future of UK agriculture post-Brexit and, in recognition of the vital role research will play in the future of British farming, the latest episode of Countryfile explored some of the issues and opportunities in agricultural research and development. Greater collaboration between farmers and researchers is needed now more than ever: farmers understand the problems of agriculture better than anyone and can help ensure research is practical and relevant, whilst scientists can bring much-needed rigour to the study.

Field labs are an example of this collaborative approach, one of the major benefits of which is the opportunity for direct knowledge exchange between farmers and researchers. Dr Thomson is part of The DiverseForages Project, a five year research project funded by the BBSRC-NERC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Club [SARIC] exploring the role of multi-species forages in achieving good yields of high quality forage for livestock production, whilst having a positive and long-term impact on the environment. The farmers taking part in the field lab will be among the first to benefit from this project’s findings as they become available, and share their own practical perspectives.

The group will begin their trials in spring. There are currently twelve Innovative Farmers field labs, running throughout the UK, looking at diverse leys and cover crops. For more information visit


Notes to editors

For media enquiries please contact Gemma Court, Press Officer, Soil Association

Email: | Tel: 0117 314 5195 | Mob: 07703 835931

Out of hours media calls: 07900 683956


Find further details on the diverse leys field lab.

To see the full range of Innovative Farmers field labs visit

Find more information on the DiverseForages Project


Innovative Farmers is a not-for-profit network that brings farmers and growers together with researchers and funders, to facilitate ground-level innovation.

Many of the best ideas in farming come from farmers, but research largely takes place off-farm: Innovative Farmers changes that. Farmers work in groups, collaborating on practical field labs to test techniques and tools, and find lasting solutions to practical problems.

Since the network was established in 2012, over 1000 farmers have taken part in field labs covering more than 40 topics. Subjects are diverse and currently include: home growing combinable organic protein crops including lupins; biochar for soil and livestock health; and alternative methods to glyphosate for the termination of cover crops.

Innovative Farmers is part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme. The network is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation and backed by a team from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association.

The network’s partners span educational, research and charitable organisations and include: ADAS, Duchy College, the Centre for Agroecology, the Food Security & Land Research Alliance and Harper Adams University.

Innovative Farmers is sponsored by Produce World Group, BBSRC, Robin Appel and Buccleuch. It is supported by the Farmer Network, the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and the Organic Growers Alliance.

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