Crop diversification for carbon-rich grasslands

Two years ago, Dutch dairy farmer Matté Eikelenboom started exploring crop diversification in his grazing land, to stimulate soil life and improve the health of his cows. His mixed pastures show promising results for the quality of his feed and the health of his animals. The variety of species also helps increase organic matter in the soil. Exchanging knowledge with other farmers has been valuable in getting the best results.

Matté has introduced a mix of herbs and clovers in two sections of his grassland, which originally solely consisted of ryegrass. He explains: “I had visited a fellow dairy farmer who grazed his cows on grassland with mixed herbs and grasses. He hadn’t used any antibiotics in over seven years. This encouraged me to test what the effect would be on the health of my own animals and the quality of my soils, which were very compacted at the time.”

The pastures now include red and white clover, plantain and chicory. “These herbs have deep roots that open up the soil and improve its structure. This helps retain water and prevents the soil from drying out. Clover also fixes nitrogen, allowing me to use less fertiliser.” Matté has added eggshells, sea salt and lava rock soil amendments to increase the amount of calcium and other minerals in the soil. He notices the positive effect on soil biodiversity: “The worms in the soil are the result of good pasture land, with a good structure and the right water levels, fertilised by solid manure mixed with straw. The mix of herbs and grasses also attracts bees, dragonflies and other insects. It just brings life to the land.”

The herb and grass mixture gives the dairy cows nutritious and protein-rich feed. Chicory and clover also have antiparasitic properties that benefit the health of the cows. Matté sees the benefits: “Not having to use antiparasitic medication helps us cut costs, and it improves the quality of the manure, which again benefits the soil.”

To stay up to date with new knowledge, Matté is now involved in the demonstration project ‘Carbon Cycle’, led by advisory service DLV Advies. This project brings together 15 conventional and organic farmers to explore ways to increase organic matter in the soil. This includes adding herb mixtures in grassland, using woodchips, on-farm composting and more. The farmers test different measures and share their experiences in the group, and with other farmers in the province of Utrecht. “We work with different soil types and have different ways of thinking. We are learning a lot from each other”, Matté says.

Matté is planning to gradually turn all of his pasture land into herbaceous grassland, and he is considering becoming an organic farmer. “We still need a few more years to get the best results, but what we see is promising. Having healthier cows means more yield. I see more biodiversity and lively soils, and I can cut costs. I think this is the future.”

From EIP AGRI. Matté Eikelenboom’s farm was visited during the European Conference on Crop Diversification 18 to 21 September 2019 in Budapest, Hungary. See:https://ec.europa.eu/eip/agriculture/en/news-events/press-media/press-release/crop-diversification-brings-multiple-benefits

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