Farmers urged to make the most of grassland SFI opportunities

Livestock farmers were encouraged to take advantage of opportunities provided by the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) improved grassland soils standard at a recent farmer meeting organized jointly by Hutchinsons and Anson Farm Feeds.

Launched in 2022, the scheme is one of several incentives being rolled out by the government as part of the transition from direct BPS payments towards measures targeting soils, the environment and ‘public good’.

At the meeting, Charlie I’Anson of Yorkshire-based I’Anson Farm Feeds told farmers: “There is a good opportunity from the SFI, and farmers are already doing a lot of what’s required, so it’s nice they can get recognition for that.”

Mr I’Anson said the purpose of the meeting was to provide farmers with clarity on grassland SFI opportunities and help them get the most out of the scheme.

Rewarding good practice

The SFI improved grassland soils standard currently has two levels, introductory and intermediate, with an advanced option expected in 2023. Qualifying farmers will enter into a three-year agreement, over which period they need to meet several criteria to be eligible for payment as shown in the table below:

Grassland SFI requirements

Hutchinsons colleague Matthew Powell listed the four key measures farmers need to carry out at introductory level:

  1. Soil assessment and development of a soil management plan. Regular review is also required to identify issues and remedial actions (e.g. surface pooling due to compaction addressed with methodical use of roots and targeted cultivations)
  2. Testing of soil organic matter (the date of tests must be within the last five years)
  3. Application of organic matter to every parcel in the agreement at least once every three years
  4. Maintenance of 95% overwinter cover(1 December–28 February) including poached land.

At intermediate level, farmers must comply with all of the above, in addition to a requirement for a diverse sward containing herbs and legumes to be established on 15% of land within 12 months.

“All grass is eligible, unless it’s completely unimproved for over 15 years. For this, an unimproved grassland option is due for later release,” Mr Powell added.

He also pointed out that SFI rules were less prescriptive than the CSS as there are no requirements for a specific species mix to be used. “It can include a mixture of grasses, legumes, and herbs, could be reseeded or overseeded, and you can maintain an existing herbal ley to meet the requirement,” Mr Powell said.

To add to the SFI’s flexibility, eligible areas can even be moved around the farm.

Will Foyle from Hutchinsons said: “There haven’t been decent grassland options available in the Countryside Stewardship scheme, so it’s encouraging the SFI rewards the good farming practice many improved dairy and beef grassland farms are already doing.”

He added that due to high fertiliser costs and a greater focus on reducing the carbon footprint of imported soya-based feeds, farmers should consider adding home-grown sources of protein to their mixes.

Chris Blashill, Hutchinsons digital services specialist. ©Tim Scrivener Photographer

Digital mapping provides further opportunities

Hutchinsons digital services specialist, Chris Blashill, said Omnia’s Field Manager services could help farmers easily and efficiently prove compliance with SFI requirements.

“Additionally, farmers can get extra value by having better soil analysis, creating tailored application plans for organic and inorganic fertiliser, and produce reports to help with Red Tractor or NVZ compliance,” Mr Blashill explained.

Along these lines, SFI requirements can also be viewed as the catalyst for more in-depth soil analysis. Undertaking a Healthy Soils or Terramap analysis provides farmers with far more accurate and detailed information than basic testing.

“There are instances where we’ve Terramapped farms and paid for the service in the first year through savings on lime where pH has been wrong,” Mr Foyle noted.

SFI payments “look less, but are worth more”

Mr Foyle acknowledged that SFI uptake had been slow so far, partly because some farmers considered the payment too small. However, he pointed out this is largely due to a lack of understanding of how SFI payments are calculated.

Unlike previous CSS options, SFI payments were available across all eligible hectares entered into the standard, even if the action has only been completed on a percentage of that land.

For instance, on a hypothetical 100 ha farm, if 15 ha was put into a CSS GS4 legume and herb-rich sward, the £358/ha payment only applied to that 15 ha. On the other hand, putting 15% of the land into a grass/clover sward under the SFI, meant £58/ha was paid across the whole 100 ha.

“On the face of it, the SFI payment looks less, but when you do the maths and understand how the payment is calculated, it’s worth more,” Mr Foyle explained.

Moreover, he added that the SFI provides scope for future support: “Next year there will be other standards coming in for nutrient management, IPM and hedgerows. We don’t know what these will involve yet, but it’s likely there’ll be more payments available for other things many farmers are doing already.”

Changes to manure requirements

The SFI requirement to add organic matter (OM) was also discussed at the meeting, with reference to Defra’s Farming Rules for Water that placed various restrictions on OM applications.

Hutchinsons’s Louis Williams outlined the changes to these measures, which were announced in response to industry concerns.

The autumn crop requirement had been removed, enabling farmers to once again apply manures ahead of winter cereals if there was no significant risk of pollution. In addition, phosphate restrictions were also updated, so that farmers may be able to apply manures to land even where phosphate index exceeds target, in cases where:

  1. Farmers produce and apply their own organic manure and cannot reasonably avoid this
  2. Farmers import organic manure as part of an integrated fertiliser system
  3. Farmers have taken all reasonable precautions to help mitigate against diffuse pollution

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