Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The first 25 years of the Allerton Project

This month we celebrate our first quarter century of research and educational activities at Loddington.  Over the twenty-five years, the Allerton Project has become a byword for practical evidence-based information on a wide range of agri-environmental issues and it is a real privilege to have played an active part in the project for the whole of that time.  On the night of 24 February 1992, our first data were collected from the farm when I ventured north from Dorset to count hares at Loddington.  We still monitor hare numbers on the farm, as well as gamebirds and songbirds, using the same methods that we used twenty-five years ago, creating a consistent and valuable long-term dataset.

Examples of how our research results have fed into policy and practice are numerous. In the early years we helped to inform guidance on set-aside management to improve skylark nesting success and carried out research on grass margins which contributed to the development of one of the most widely adopted agri-environment scheme options. A MAFF contract in the late 1990s enabled us to develop wild bird seed mixtures as an agri-environment scheme option.  Later, we were able to use our long-term monitoring of bird numbers at Loddington to support the case for the provision of seed food in winter to improve the late winter survival and breeding numbers of farmland birds.

Intensive monitoring of the nesting success of songbirds has contributed enormously to our improved understanding of the interaction of habitat and predation pressure on songbird nesting success and subsequent breeding abundance.  As a result of the management system implemented at Loddington, songbird numbers are twice as high now as they were at the start of the project.

Our research extends beyond our own farm at Loddington, especially in terms of catchment management.  A decade ago, we highlighted the impact of rural septic tanks on water quality and aquatic life, and more recently have done the same for rural sewage treatment works through our Water Friendly Farming project.  A partnership with the Freshwater Habitats Trust, this project has become a national focal point for issues relating to the management of agricultral catchments, including nutrients, pesticides and sediment in water, and the implications of land management for downstream flood risk. The combination of field and plot-scale research at Loddington and landscape scale research in Water Friendly Farming enabled us to become one of just three research and demonstration farms linked to landscape scale projects in Defra's Sustainable Intensification research Platform (SIP).

SIP study site leads outside the Allerton Project eco-build visitor centre which receives several thousand visitors each year

Highly relevant to our objectives for improved water quality, managing flood risk, and reducing our contribution to climate change, as well as for economically viable food production, is our research on soil management during a period in which the farm has moved from a plough-based system to direct drilling.  Defra and EU funding has enabled us to explore the potential of cover crops, reduced tillage, in-field barriers and field edge detention ponds.  As a result, we now have a rapidly developing understanding of soil compaction, organic matter, and the important role that below-ground life plays in maintaining soil function to meet both economic and environmental objectives.  While our focus has mainly been on arable cropping, we have recently introduced research on livestock systems and agroforestry.

Our Ecologist, John Szczur has contributed to the Allerton Project's research for the full twenty-five years, but over that time we have also worked with numerous research partners.  Indeed, one of the strengths of the Allerton Project must be our long record of collaborating on research with a wide range of partners across Europe, from academia, NGOs and industry, and our active involvement of the local farming community.  We have also benefited from the many MSc and PhD students who have worked with us over the years.

We have a wealth of knowledge to share.  Last year nearly four thousand people came through our eco-build visitor centre to learn about our research results, how they might be applied on farm, and to the development and implementation of agri-environmental policies.  Our role in this is more important now than ever, as we prepare for life outside the EU.

We have recently updated our report on the Allerton Project's activities, 'Fields for the Future' and you can download a pdf here.  Also, look out for my article in the August issue of British Wildlife, and for further updates on individual projects on this blog over the coming months. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Welland Arable Business Group

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) runs a network of Arable Business Groups across the country, enabling farmers from the same area to benchmark the economic performance of their cropping against each other, and against regional and national averages.  It's a great initiative that stimulates discussion within the group about how we each approach our cropping systems.  It is an opportunity for us to learn from each other, as well as from AHDB expertise, and from invited speakers. 

The Welland Arable Business Group was formed in 2015.  Its members have a wide range of business types including various forms of tenure, a range of farm sizes, and some representation of livestock in the predominently arable systems. 

Economic benchmarking stimulates discussion about the dependence of our businesses on the environment
Low crop prices and increasing input costs, coupled with the impending but unkown changes associated with Brexit, mean that profitability is elusive and the future, uncertain. Add to that the vagaries of the weather and exchange rates and maintaining a viable business becomes even more challenging.  This certainly focuses the mind on reducing input costs and making the most of existing assets, but at the same time, makes investment in new equipment and strategies difficult.

Soil is the most fundamental resource of most farm businesses and one of the messages to come out of our discussions within the group is that we need to improve our management of it.  The drive for ever larger machinery, combined with more frequent intense winter rains, and a decline in soil organic matter, all contribute to deteriorating soil conditions and reduce our capacity for both economic and environmental sustainability.
Soil Organic Matter (%) on farms in the upper Welland river basin
Loss of soil organic matter is something that group members have identified as being of concern, and we have been able to help by carrying out surveys of organic matter across farms in the upper Welland.  This provides a baseline against which individual farms can evaluate any changes they make in their soil management.  Most are currently well below the 5% considered to be desirable for effective soil function in terms of crop rooting capacity, nutrient uptake and summer moisture retention.

Our new EU funded SoilCare research project provides an opportunity for us to explore, with local farmers, new approaches to soil management that could help to improve farm profitability, while also delivering public benefits such as improved water quality, and reduced flood risk, all work that links neatly with our other ongoing research projects.
Members taking part in the prioritisation process for soil management research

Group members are not passive recipients of the research results, but have an active role from the start.  In fact, it is the farmers who are setting the research agenda by identifying and prioritising the areas of greatest relevance and interest to their businesses.  Farmers will continue to be actively engaged in the research as it develops.  This approach ensures that the research we carry out as the UK site in this European project will also be relevant to other farmers across much of lowland England.