Farming In Scotland


Farming in Scotland

Almost 80% of Scotland’s agricultural area is grassland. It really is our most important crop; however it is sadly the most over-looked, and rarely thought of as a crop. Grassland is often assessed in a ‘drive-by agronomy’ fashion with murmurings about fields greening after a quick look over the dyke but now that spring is finally here – or coming at least – it’s important to get out into the fields and turn your attention to grass and forage planning for 2021 and beyond particularly for those with perennial grass swards if you haven’t already. Decisions taken now can impact the performance of a long term ley for its whole lifespan.


Prioritising soil sampling is a fundamental first step which should be kept up to date with soil samples no older than 5 years. Recent soil sampling reports worrying state that STILL only 9% of UK grassland soils are at target levels for P & K – two of the most fundamental nutrients for crop establishment and development.  Check not only pH – which should be 6.2-6.5, but also the calcium level which should be no less than 2000ppm.  By having soil fertility correct and coupled with good soil structure this will encourage an overall healthy soil capable of establishing and supporting healthy, highly productive swards of grass regardless of whether it is for grazing, silage or both.


Like condition scoring livestock helps to make appropriate rationing decisions, assessing the existing state of all your fields will make forage planning much easier. Getting out into the field and looking at soil structures, species present, clover percentage and fertility indicators can highlight a poorer performing field and allow you to prioritise this for remedial action before it gets worse. The Barenbrug Good Grass Guide is a free tool that can help with scoring grass and can be used as a field record.


The next step is to know exactly what you want to achieve from the fields you have identified to reseed or improve. Those looking to graze sheep for 8 years will have very different requirements to those looking to achieve 14t DM/ha/annum from a 4 cut system in a 4 year rotation. Knowing the goal will help in mixture selection at reseeding, targeting management for the desired outcome and budgeting. Ultimately, improving all this can have a beneficial impact on winter ration planning too as it is easier to work with higher or more targeted quality forage.


We are seeing an increasing number of enquiries for an alternative range of and larger number of species, of grasses, legumes and forage herb. The interest is coming from a desire to increase homegrown protein, reduce reliance on artificial nitrogen, boost soil health and quality, improve the mineral composition of forage diets, reduce anthelmintic use and boost biodiversity in the farm ecosystem. Cost reduction is a consideration in all these however increasingly, the environmental drivers are becoming more important. Reducing carbon foot print by reducing the volume of fertilisers and imported feed bought in could have a significantly positive impact on our path to carbon net zero by 2045.


A lot of our Scottish grassland is rough grazing but having a broad range of plant species in the 3.2 million acres of grassland we can influence and manage more intensely, can bring about the following benefits:

  • Nitrogen fixing potential from legumes reducing the need for artificial Nitrogen for existing and following crops.
  • The properties of species such as chicory can reduce the frequency of use of and total volume required of anthelmintics in lambs. They can also improve overall health, daily liveweight gains and reducing finishing times.
  • Use of deep-rooted species such as soft leaved tall fescue or red clovers stabilises light soils and provides drought tolerant solutions for lower rainfall areas.
  • Diverse swards with dense soles and complex root systems maintain soil cover, help to reduce soil erosion and can reduce or prevent run-off which reduces water pollution. Deep rooted species subsequently improved soil quality for water and nutrient retention/flow. Dense swards also restrict the growth of weeds leading to a reduced herbicide requirement.
  • Increase of trace element diversity in the diet for grazing animals leading to more resilient, healthy livestock.
  • Increased species diversity providing habitat/food sources for more varied animal life both under ground in the soil microbial life and above ground for insects, birds and mammals alike.


We are in a time of great change, but one constant is Scotland’s ability to grow grass and world- renowned produce from that grass. There is no doubt that we will have to change how we manage it and to some extent what we manage as we go forward however well managed grass and forage, given the attention to detail it deserves, will continue to provide the healthiest and most profitable contribution to our wonderful Scottish Farms.