Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Sustainable Intensification - the foundation is laid

The Allerton Project has played a major role in Defra's Sustainable Intensification research Platform (SIP) over the past three years as one of the five research and demonstration farms in the SIP network. The wider SIP consortium has involved around thirty partners, and last week, most of us attended a three day conference to present our results, share lessons learnt, and discuss options for the future.  The aim of the SIP was always to establish a network of farms and associated research partners as a foundation for continuing collaboration on research into management practices which address economic, environmental and social objectives in agriculture.  The need for such a network is greater now than it has ever been.

Nigel Kendall (Nottingham Uni.) shares research results with visiting farmers
For us at Loddington, the SIP enabled us to carry out our first research into grass and livestock systems.  As a result of the research carried out by Nottingham University School of Veterinary Science, we now have a better understanding of how availability of trace elements such as selenium and cobalt vary spatially between fields and seasonally through the spring and summer, and how sheep respond to these changes.  Such an understanding is important to our ability to integrate livestock and arable systems, bringing grass leys into the rotation so that they perform optimally for both arable and livestock interests, while also delivering for the environment through reduced flood risk, improved soil structure and water quality, and benefits to biodiversity. A summary of this work is available here.  The collaboration with Nottingham University is one we are continuing, with further work already being undertaken on grass and livestock systems. 

The SIP has also enabled us to carry out research into the potential economic and envirommental benefits of cover crops, and into issues associated with landuse change at the catchment scale.  Cover crops are increasingly adopted on lighter soils and in southern England where they are valued by farmers for the benefits they bring to soil structure, organic matter and nutrient cycling, and subsequently to the following cash crop.  On clay soils further north though, the benefits are less clear.  Growing conditions mean that harvests are later and soil conditions are cooler and often wetter when cover crops are drilled, resulting in poorer establishment and associated benefits.  We were able to explore these issues and I will report on this another time, but you can download a summary here.

Our catchment scale work within the SIP was built into our existing Water Friendly Farming experiment and involved using the grass weed herbicide propyzamide as a focus for discussing with farmers a wider range of ecosystem services associated with landscape scale soil and water management.  Both the plot scale cover crops research and landscape scale work on propyzamide are centred around soil as the key natural capital asset for any farm business.

Throughout, we are aiming to develop management practices which benefit both the farm business and the environment, optimising the use of natural resources to achieve this.  Terms such as 'sustainable intensification', 'ecosystem services' and 'natural capital' are commonly used in discussing this broad issue, but each represents a form of jargon that sits uncomfortably with many people.  This is especially so when these terms are promoted with doctrinal zeal which can be confusing and offputting.  It is almost as though such language is used to distance the speaker from the listener - more to instill authority than understanding.

But these terms do have an important role in furthering our understanding, not least through the limitations that each of them has.  As an apparent oxymoron, 'sustainable intensification' does this well, highlighting the tension between maximising production now and ensuring production is maintained into the future through a healthy environment, and pointing the way towards an approach in which both can be optimised.  'Ecosystem services' emphasises the need to improve our understanding of the environmental trade-offs underlying, not just production but multiple other benefits to society, but also reveals the need to recognise those aspects of our environment from which there is no obvious or immediate benefit to society. While 'natural capital' highlights the need to value this broad range of natural resources, it also highlights the limitations associated with making that value purely economic, revealing our lack of knowledge to make that possible, even when it might be desirable.

Such considerations can guide future research to fill these knowledge gaps, but we need to leave the jargon behind when it comes to translating those research findings into guidance for practical management.  Knowledge exchange has been a central part of the SIP, as it has for the Allerton Project throughout the past quarter century.  It is that interaction between academics, the research and demonstration farm network, and a wide range of agricultural professionals which has given the SIP its strength.  The foundation is laid.  There is now some building to do.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Multiple resources and a common vision

The Welland Valley Partnership was one of the first to be set up under Defra's Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) initiative in 2013.  The partnership is led by the Welland Rivers Trust with support from the Environment Agency, and also includes local authorities, National Farmers Union, Anglian Water and others, including ourselves.  The partnership's Resource Protection Group (RPG) includes these and other interests and aims to identify common ground between the often disperate interests of the partners and to guide and support local farmers to adopt management practices that improve the river.

But the Resource Protection Group is not concerned only with water as a resource. Soil, nutrients, and even pesticides which cause problems in water are also resources that require stewardship and wise use in order to achieve profitable farm businesses, as well as improved water quality and enhanced aquatic biodiversity.  The common ground is not hard to find.  Achieving common objectives is more challenging.

That is where the other resource comes into play - knowledge.  That includes the scientific knowledge that the Allerton Project accumulates by conducting research at field, farm and landscape scales, but it also includes the knowledge that farmers have about their land at a similar range of scales. 

Within the Welland RPG there is a balance between practical and academic expertise, spread across the spheres of water policy, catchment ecology, drinking water supply, agri-environmental advice delivery, soil science, agronomy, agricultural policy and practical farming. We have not fallen out yet!  That is not to say that we duck the difficult issues where conflicting interests create challenges, but there is a genuine desire to concentrate on the benefits to us all by focusing on the synergies between land and water management that will meet the needs of our children in future, as well as ourselves right now.

We don't have all the answers, and not everything we do goes as we might expect it to, but that is the nature of a pioneering initiative.  By working closely with the local farming community, and drawing on the latest results from our research, and all the expertise within the group, we are well placed to achieve those common objectives.  And through the Allerton Project's ongoing programme of knowledge exchange activities, we can share the lessons learnt, the good and the bad, with land and water managers from across the country so that the benefits of our work reach far beyond the river Welland.

Monday, 24 July 2017

The nature of landscapes

The wildlife present in any given landscape is determined by the characteristics of that landscape, but what are the characteristics that are most influential, especially for farmland species where the conflict between profitable food production and wildife conservation has played out most forcefully over the past half century or so?  These influences could be types of crops or the amount of semi-natural habitats, or the diversity of different crops and semi-natural habitats, or the complexity of the spatial arrangement of those crops and semi-natural habitats across the landscape.   Inevitably, different species are dependent on cropped or semi-natural habitats to differing extents, but the diversity or spatial arrangement may play an additional role.

Landscape diversity (left) and complexity (right)
We know that some bird species are associated with woodland, others with open fields, and still more use a combination of open fields and woodland or hedges.  Our monitoring at Loddington also tells us that different bird species are associated with different crops, with linnets and reed buntings using oilseed rape, and tree sparrows using field beans for example.  How crops are managed is another influence.  Low input crops support a greater abundance of invertebrate food for breeding birds than intensively managed crops for example. Twenty years ago, our research at Loddington showed that yellowhammers gathering food for their young used different crops at different times during the breeding season.  They had a foraging range of up to 300 metres, so both crop diversity and spatial arrangement of habitats would influence their access to suitable foraging sites.  
Fallow land with Holm Oaks in the study area
In a recently published paper, we explored the influences of landscape characteristics on bird communities in an agricultural area of southern Portugal.  Modelling used bird survey data from 1995-1997, and a subsequent period (2010-2012) in which changes to landscape characteristics had occurred as a result of Common Agricultural Policy reform.  For both farmland species, and rarer species that are characteristic of open steppe conditions, the heterogeneity of natural habitats had some positive influence, and for farmland species, the amount of edge had a positive effect.  However, for the steppe birds, the greatest positive influence was the area of rain-fed arable crops and pasture.

These results suggest that, while structural characteristics of the landscape have an influence on breeding bird communities, the land that is used for food production can have a greater influence for some species if managed sympathetically.   Southern Portugal is not the same as the UK, but this paper supports the suggestion that we need to consider both the composition of the landscape - the crops we grow and the way we grow them - as well as landscape heterogeneity to meet the needs of farmland wildlife. 

This is an approach that we are taking at Loddington, where we have increased habitat diversity and complexity by introducing new habitats through our Environmental Stewardship agreement, but have also increased the diversity of cropped land by extending the arable rotation to include more crops.  To some extent this change is driven by the need to manage competetive grass weeds, but this approach makes the practical management of the rotation more complicated, demands a greater knowledge base, and requires greater storage capacity for the different harvested crops for example. In the past, we have increased the complexity of the spatial crop distribution across the farm, as well as the diversity, but this proved to be a step too far in terms of the economic cost to the business.

We also modify the management of our crops, not least by the selective use of pesticides to minimise negative ecological impacts on pollinating insects, invertebrate predators of crop pests, and the invertebrates that provide food for farmland birds.  Such an approach also requires commitment and knowledge and complicates farm management decisions in what is already an economically challenging world.  The global market for crops pays little heed to the requirements of wildlife, or farmers wishing to conserve it.  Similarly, our move, over a number of years, towards a no-till system of crop establishment, stabilises soil conditions, contributing to better soil function, with potential benefits to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, but it is not without its challenges and economic costs along the way.

Modifying crop management, increasing crop diversity, and increasing landscape complexity are all changes that are likely to benefit wildlife and landscape in the UK as much as in southern Portugal, but the farming systems and approaches to achieve this are very different.  That is something to consider between now and March 2019.

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.