Grasslands are one of the world’s most widespread habitats that attract myriad plant and animal species, above and below ground. Their near-unparalleled diversity is in Slovenia mainly associated with the cutting system and as such is the result of centuries of conservation by manual work. This intersection of different vegetations and its fascinating diversity is a breeding ground of ideas for agricultural use.
As an agronomist he has been studying land use in grasslands in Slovenia for 25 years, especially in the Karst, hilly regions, and other less favoured agricultural areas, occasionally also in lowlands. His research and expertise in grasslands is closely associated with the seasons (early spring grazing, summer and autumn grazing, outwintering selected species of livestock).
A lot has changed in terms of teaching what is valuable or necessary since he was a student. In terms of mowing and grasslands, for example, this means that 25 years ago grassland biodiversity was not yet part of the equation, nor were the views advocating less intensive land use practices in this ecosystem. Grasslands were seen as a space to be exploited and used for profit. The rules have changed a bit and today the grazing adage goes “take half, leave half”. “If we as a society don’t give back to nature, we are lost as a species,” he adds.
With regard to grasslands in urban areas we should not lose sight of the fact that in addition to plant diversity, i.e. flowers, grasses, and the legume family, these urban grasslands also support different animals, from insects to birds. In these terms, biodiversity opens up a new perspective on green areas. If we want to transform cultivated lawns into flowering meadows we have to abandon mulching and introduce cutting regimes that promote their regeneration and vitality. For this to happen, the meadow is cut for the first time at a late stage of development, which means no recreation or lingering in these areas – because you can’t cut trampled grass.
Situated in Ljubljana, he conducts his research in western Slovenia. His turf is where the grass grows, so to speak. The faculty has an outdoor laboratory field and laboratory equipment for basic analyses. In the laboratory field he conducts several-year-long trials with his collaborators, studying the response of grass sward to different types of uses. They also study the extension of the autumn grazing season and the outwintering of selected livestock species on grasslands, which has a positive effect on climate change: overwintering is less carbon intensive, because it requires less conserved and stored forage and reduces fossil fuel consumption.
Standard research methods are used to determine the quality of the herbage yield, in analysis of the use of grasslands in production, and the effect of various factors on the sward yield. These include direct methods such as cutting, measuring, weighing, and assessment, as well as indirect methods used to determine connections between selected factors that affect grass swards. Contemporary digitalisation methods are increasingly used in this field, including aerial photography, remote sensing, and satellite monitoring of the earth’s surface. Deeper analyses involve determining and inventorying plant species in the sward, determining and measuring the yield by type of use, and determining the nutritional and energy value of forage. In addition to standard methods they use meteorological approaches to understand how changes in the atmosphere correlate with the frequency of droughts and floods, and their impact on grass swards. All trials take place “in the field”, in situ and in vivo.
Today, we understand agriculture as an economic activity that both supports food production as well as maintains and preserves the plant and animal diversity of our cultural landscape. The Colourful Pasture (Pisan pašnik) project looked at the impact of (no) grazing on plant diversity and concluded that grazing maintains, and in places even enhances plant biodiversity with species characteristic for the sites that only animals can reach, but only if it complies with the principles of controlled grazing. In Matej’s words: “Grass is the big life! All animals, including people, are small lives only. And when you’ve succeeded in destroying the big life, the little lives there will perish as well.” Which is why grassland management experts and farmers work hand in hand – to preserve this big life and keep it in good shape.