As part of their ongoing research into the relationship between farming and the environment, the Allerton Project has been investigating ways to improve soil health and productivity through cultivation.
Phil Jarvis, former head of farming, training and partnerships at the Allerton Project started working at the project in 1992, following many years of experience in the sector and now continues to work as a farmer himself.
In this blog, he discusses the reasons why the Allerton Project decided to move away from the plough and how a recent trial focusing on reducing tillage, has benefited the environment and provided some positive outcomes for those looking to move towards zero till.
The Allerton Project has always been at the forefront of conservation in agriculture and for many years has been looking to reduce tillage.
However, with much of the industry conversation currently around regenerative and conservation agriculture, the Allerton Project recently decided to investigate minimum tillage in-depth.
They embarked on a five year trial in 2017 on the 300 hectare farm in Leicestershire to understand how moving away from the plough could benefit farmers, cropping and the environment.
The findings could then be used to advise other farms across the UK on how best to adopt similar regenerative agriculture practices themselves.
One of the main focuses of the trial was to reduce the horsepower of machinery used on farm with the idea being that it would lead to significant cost savings.
Reducing horsepower of machinery also means the machinery is much smaller and lighter which will help to reduce compaction, an issue many farmers face when it comes to cultivation.
Due to the geography of the Allerton Project, there are a couple of challenges that need to be considered through the trial.
The Allerton project sits on heavy Hanslope Denchworth clay soils, which can be highly challenging to cultivate and would likely benefit from reduced tillage as it avoids damage to the soil structure. The terrain around Loddington is also frequently steep and rolling, which needed to be considered before the trial commenced.
Similar to many farms, the project has also struggled with a significant blackgrass problem so whatever cultivation practices they carry out, must not encourage the return of blackgrass.
Like any farm in the UK, weather is always the biggest factor influencing cultivation so it’s important that during the process of this trial, the farm works with the weather, rather than against it.
In order to tackle some of these challenges, selecting the correct machinery prior to the start of the trial was crucial.
Prior to 2000 a conventional plough was used at the Allerton Project farm. From 2000 to 2015 the farm moved to a minimum ploughing system as it sought to reduce tillage. This was a drastic change for the farm at the time, but for the recent trial, new machinery was needed to fully investigate the minimum till approach to cultivation.
The Sumo LDS was chosen for the trial as it doesn’t disturb too much of the soil and suits the reduced tillage intensity approach.
This machine alleviates subsurface compaction with minimal surface disturbance – significantly reducing grassweed germination.
At the front of the LDS is a 20″ straight serrated leading disc initiates a rip line for the following leg, ensuring a clean entry and substantially reducing the germination of grassweeds. This method reduces the reliance on chemical treatments that are leached into watercourses. By removing competition, young crops can establish more vigorously, too.
Following in line with the discs, low disturbance legs and points offer full width lift and pan shatter. Lifting the soil lets air flow into the root zone while effective pan shatter offers excellent root development and aids water infiltration, better nitrogen uptake and limits run off leaving a soil environment that holds its biodiversity well.
At the back of the machine is Sumo’s Flat shark fin packer which ensures important surface aeration, consolidation and a level finish across the full working width.
At the trial site, the top 20cm of the soil is good but below there is a band of compaction which can cause some difficulties for cultivation. The Sumo LDS works well in this situation as it goes down to a depth of 25cm.
Following the LDS, the Sumo Strake was used prior to direct drilling. The straw rake creates an even residue of chopped straw across the field which acts as organic matter and helps to boost soil health.
Using a straw rake exposes and destroys slugs and slug eggs laid in the chopped straw. It beats and moves the stubble residue prompting faster organic matter breakdown and tears out and kills off young weed seedlings and volunteers that slugs feed on. This results in less need for chemical intervention as it helps prevent pests and volunteers becoming a problem later in stubbles.
So far, there have been many positive results from the trial which showed the benefits of moving away from the plough.
Some results include:
The organic matter content in the soil also appears to be increasing which will help with crop establishment. This can take many years to improve, and much clearer results will be seen once the trial has finished but it’s a promising result for the future and shows just one benefit the chosen machinery delivered.
There has been some challenging weather conditions so far through the trial, such as 40 mph winds which has caused some issues with wind erosion and the influx of wild oats. But, these are issues which are somewhat unavoidable and can be worked around in future.
Blackgrass and slugs were a slight concern during the trial, but Phil explains that the only way this problem could be combatted is through accurate drilling and through greater use of the strake as this can help to destroy slug eggs and early established weeds.
In the future, a rotational drill may have to be brought in as the project becomes more flexible as a system. This will also help to improve drainage throughout the farm and allow the farm to get smarter with their rotation such as going back to drilling in September.
Much of the research carried out at the Allerton Project is used in wider educational and advisory programmes, with many of the findings set to provide valuable insight to farmers across the UK interested in regenerative agriculture.
For those looking to move towards a similar system where tillage is reduced, Phil has provided some insightful advice based on his experience and findings from the trial.
Weather can be incredibly challenging and the unpredictability of it can affect plans.
As its unavoidable, Phil explains farmers should work around weather rather than try to build concrete plans for when they are going to cultivate or drill as there is a high chance the weather will play havoc with their plans.
Machinery can be expensive. If you’re adopting a new system or trying to implement new practices, it could be worthwhile getting involved in a machinery ring in your area before investing in a piece of kit.
Once you know the machine works well for you and your system, you can then invest in a piece of machinery as you know you can get full value out of your investment.
Sometimes the window for cultivation and drilling can be very tight so it can be difficult for a farmer to do it all on their own.
Employing contractors will relieve some of the pressure on farmers which is important during busy points in the season.
As discussed previously in our soil type blog, soils across the country are incredibly varied. This means a practise that suits one soil type may not be appropriate in another.
Having a good understanding of your soil is the first step to improving its productivity.
Doing what is required to improve your soil health will help you to get the most out of your soil in terms of yield and quality.
This could mean using different machinery, but also looking at crop inputs, such as how the nutritional and crop protection products support the soil or could mean looking at different cropping options and rotations.
It could also include integrated pest management and irrigation, which are all steps that need to be considered when adopting a system aligned with conservation agriculture.
For more information on how Sumo machinery can benefit your soil and work within a reduced tillage system, contact the Sumo team here