CHRIS Stephenson had a catch crop of Autumn Gold emerging within eight days of harvesting his winter barley.

The mixture of Hobson forage rape and Samson stubble turnips will provide winter feed from November through to spring for the farm’s 250 lamb crop and, hopefully this year, for beef stores.

Mr Stephenson, who runs his 170 hectare farm at Bishop Auckland with his wife, said: “We had great success with this mixture last year. We grew 4ha of this rape and stubble turnip mixture and strip grazed the crop from November until April.

“It provided plenty of high-quality feed for finishing our 100 lambs and enough for the ewes for a month. The mild winter helped, but it just kept growing.”

Mr Stephenson found that the lambs grazed the crop fairly evenly. “They grazed the forage rape first and the tops of the turnips then returned to eat the bulbs. There was little, if any, waste,” he said.

This year he has doubled his planting of Autumn Gold to 8ha after harvesting winter barley that was cut for wholecrop in the second week of July.

He direct drilled it straight into the stubble within days of harvest and applied 250kg of 20:10:10 fertiliser. Four days later the catch crop was emerging.

He said: “We don’t need any pest control or further sprays which makes it relatively easy and cheap to grow. Depending on the late summer temperature, we should have a crop ready to graze by autumn and I might graze some beef cattle on it early in the season.”

Once the forage crop is finished, Mr Stephenson looks to get the land ready for a spring cereal or grass. “We prepare the seed bed by power harrowing then rolling the land – I am trying to minimise tilling so we avoid ploughing if we can.”

Alongside the feed value of a catch crop, he values a ground cover during winter. “It’s good for the soil condition. This rape and turnip mixture puts lots of root into the ground and it gets recycled along with any foliage and muck from the livestock so we’re adding lots of organic matter.”

It has also helped him with brome control on the farm. “The brome will come through with the Autumn Gold and the sheep graze it off before we drill the next cereal crop or grass the following spring. This works really well.”

Harriet Blakey, Nickersons’ northern seed specialist, said Mr Stephenson is typical of many mixed farmers in the North-East where catch crops are being used to improve soil health and reduce the reliance on inputs.

She said: “There are plenty of options when it comes to catch or cover crops. It depends on the conditions and the livestock being grazed, but Autumn Gold ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to grazing livestock over winter and it’s ideal for finishing lambs.”

Post-harvest catch crop:

n Provides a high value feed crop - energy from the bulbs and protein from the leaves;

n Extends the grazing season and/or they can take the pressure of silage stocks;

n Leads to less reliance on bought-in feeds and lower feed costs;

n Enhances soil condition through more organic material from the root systems and foliage plus any manure from grazing livestock;

n Used as part of a rotation, these crops can contribute to pest control by interrupting a typical pest lifecycle;

n Strip grazing a catch crop like Autumn Gold is relatively low cost and low labour input.