By Debbie James

Growing herbal leys has helped a Carmarthenshire sheep farm more than halve its bagged nitrogen use.

Hywel Morgan introduced the leys into the rotation as a feed for fattening lambs at Esgairllaethdy, Myddfai, near Llandovery,

He traditionally fattened lambs from the 480-ewe Welsh Improved flock on perennial ryegrass but when the leys performed poorly during recent hot summers, he sought an alternative to overcome drought and one that would not rely on large amounts of fertiliser.

The herbal leys he is now growing are a complex seed mixture of grasses, legumes and herbs that can bring benefits to forage nutrient value, livestock health and soil fertility.

They draw up nutrients from the ground with their deep roots, fixing nitrogen and providing medicinal benefits for the animals that eat them.

No chemical weed control or fertiliser is used on the crop.

As a result of growing herbal leys and making other management changes on the 63-hectare holding, including reducing sheep numbers by 60, Mr Morgan has cut nitrogen use across the farm from 16 tonnes to seven tonnes.

Use of wormer has reduced too – lambs were only dosed twice for worms based on the results of faecal egg counts.

Evidence suggests that sainfoin, birdsfoot trefoil and chicory are natural wormers.

Some of Mr Morgan’s interest in the medicinal benefits of herbal leys come from the work of the so-called Physicians of Myddfai, a group of herbalists that had lived and worked locally.

“I read a book about the physicians and learned about the remedies that they used, made from only natural products and grown locally in the Myddfai area,’’ says Mr Morgan.

“Some of the herbs they used are very beneficial to livestock too.’’

Mr Morgan sells some of his lamb direct to consumers who want to know how the meat is produced.

“What livestock are fed is becoming more important to the customer and will become even more important,’’ he says.

He expects the leys to be productive for four years, although some mixes last longer.

“If our summers are going to get drier it will provide good feed for finishing lambs on,’’ he believes.

The herbal leys have also helped to reduce water run-off from fields; during heavy downpours, this has resulted in a slower flow of water in the nearby stream.

Mr Morgan sees a future where herbal leys will become more commonplace on Welsh farms.

“Over the years my father had questioned why I wasn’t using cocksfoot, Timothy and other herbs that grow at different times of the year because if you look at the base of the swards in grass fields there are lots of gaps. I didn’t listen to him but as ever he was right.’’