The Allerton project has been researching farm ecosystems and the effects of different farming methods on wildlife and the environment for over 20 years. As a commercial operation the farm produces a range of crops including winter wheat, oilseed rape, winter oats, spring oats and spring beans. The arable activities of the farm have been managed in collaboration with a neighbouring farm since 2001 when we adopted minimum tillage. 30 hectares of permanent pasture is grazed by a flock of 280 mule ewes, a small flock of Leicester Longwools and, through a grazing agreement with a neighbouring farm, a South Devon suckler herd. There are 20 hectares of woodland, as well as numerous streams and ponds, within the farm boundaries.
Our soft wheat and oats crops are grown to an environmental standard and used in breakfast cereals - we currently have contracts with both Jordans and Kelloggs. Our milling wheat is turned into flour for bread making. Spring beans are produced for human consumption and export. We pool our grain via merchants and forward sell. Although long term contracts are available for certain crops, it is not always possible to commit due to the need for flexibility in our rotations. We are attempting to establish closer links with our end users.
To diversify our income we have established a farm waste recycling scheme which receives waste from nearby farm holdings for onward recycling. This provides a cost-effective service for neighbouring farms. Due to widespread interest in the Allerton project we have constructed a visitor centre, built from sustainable materials, where we provide education and training courses. We are proud to be a LEAF innovation farm and participate in Open Farm Sunday to share our work with the public.
Direct drilling for resilient soils
We have lost touch with what is good for our soil - soil health has been neglected for too long. At Allerton we are trying to make our soils more resilient. We have successfully widened our rotations, introduced cover crops and we are now making the transition towards direct drilling. The direct drill approach allows our soils to remain undisturbed by leaving crop residues on the surface from harvest until sowing. Seeds are placed into narrow slots created by purpose built drills. We have developed a two pass operation. A low disturbance sub-soiler, such as the Sumo LDS, is used to remove compaction. This kind of subsoiler hardly puts a slip through the ground, it just lifts the soil. We then direct drill into moisture using either a Dale drill, or a proper direct drill. To complement this we have also reduced the size of our machinery and replaced the tyres on our combine with tracks.
This approach to soil management is very dependent on the weather. Due to our heavy soils, direct drilling is more difficult in wet conditions but I think it will be very successful in dry years. The main challenges we face are slugs, black grass and volunteer crops. Managing the dominant crop and reducing volunteer crops or grass weeds is difficult on our soils. My approach to black grass control is to keep it on the surface and not bury too much. Attention to detail is important – like keeping your combine clean at certain times and in certain fields. The type of drill you choose for seed bed preparation is also important. For slug control you want a fine seed bed with no clods. This kind of ‘best practice’ is vital. We haven’t quite combated the problems with black grass and slugs, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.
We probably need to continue our approach for another 5 years to get consistent results but our experiments with direct drilling are paying off. I can grow crops successfully without too much intervention from my tractor or plough and our yields are competitive. I have definitely seen the benefits in terms of increased soil flora and fauna. From a financial point of view there is an opportunity to save on machinery and fuel costs, save on labour and hopefully this will increase our profitability. To stay up-to-date with our work on direct drilling, and more, follow my blog.
Every summer holiday from the age of 13 I worked on a friend’s dairy farm. I was bitten by the bug and decided to go into farming as a career. After school I attended agricultural college at Harper Adams. Since then I have worked as a farm manager in both the arable and livestock sectors. I am passionate about British farming, environmental stewardship and rural employment. As I have become more experienced it has been a privilege to have worked with, and represented, some of the leading organisations in the industry including the NFU, Guild of Conservation Grade Producers, Natural England, FWAG and LEAF.
We cannot continue to produce food without thinking about the long term impacts. It’s important that farmers keep the bigger picture in mind; we must make sure we can produce food and look after the environment. Personally, I am inspired by agroecology because it is a win-win model. One of my major motivations is honing good arable principles. Most of these principles are tools of the trade for organic producers, and I believe there should be more collaboration between organic and conventional farmers. As our access to herbicides and pesticides reduces we will have to develop our skills and learn to harness natural processes as part of our farming. Developing techniques that produce good healthy food but protect our financial bottom line is ultimately what drives me and our work at Allerton.
I am proud to be part of a great team that has helped to bring about a more sustainable approach to farming. We have pioneered techniques for carbon storage, renewable energy, environmental habitats, soil protection and water protection. People get inspiration from what we are doing and we are held in some esteem by our peers. Allerton provides a place for people to discuss their options and share ideas. Our techniques are being adopted and adapted; as a result the impact of our work is spreading.
Interested in finding out more? Have a read of a guest blog article by Phil 'Cover crop crossroads.'