It is a demanding task to research the interaction between farming and wildlife. It becomes a bigger challenge when trying to farm profitably, care for the environment and be an integral part of the local community.
The Allerton Project has been addressing these issues for over 20 years whilst meeting a primary objective to produce food to feed a growing population. The farming system has evolved over two decades and now embraces many of the modern technologies found in British agriculture.
The Allerton Project farm at Loddington in Leicestershire consists of 333 hectares of Denchworth and Hanslope clay, growing winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, winter/spring oats and winter/spring beans. Sheep graze 30 hectares of permanent grassland. The farm has 20 hectares of woodland and numerous stream and ponds within its boundaries.
Early years: ploughed-based cultivations
In 1992 when the project arrived, the cultivation system used a plough, disc and power harrow to provide seedbeds for a Suffolk coulter seed drill. Winter barley, winter beans and spring linseed were a significant part of the rotation. Research into countryside stewardship mixes was at the forefront of our landscape research.
In 1997 the farm moved to a more minimal tillage approach; our cultivation and drilling equipment was based on discs and tines. The Allerton Project joined forces with WJ Wright & Son in 2000 and started a joint venture farming operation, sharing machinery and labour. The arable farming area has now grown to 800 hectares. In 2001 we introduced a disc cultivator drill, which allowed us further reduce our crop establishment operations. The main cultivation tractor moved from tyres to tracks to reduce soil compaction.
A cultivator drill and tracks replaced tyres to reduce ground pressure at the Allerton Project.
During this period our research looked at a number of issues affecting soil erosion, organic matter and soil flora and fauna. With the Water Framework Directive becoming more relevant to British agriculture, our soil and water demonstrations received increasing interest. In recent years nutrient management and erosion mitigation measures have become a feature on the farm. The combined approach of the public, private and charitable sector stakeholders has enabled practical research and demonstration to thrive at Loddington, and we are proud to be a LEAF innovation farm.
A move to direct drilling
The concerns over food safety and security, highlighted in the government’s Food 2030 report, mean research into production systems from ‘field to fork’ are receiving increasing scrutiny. The Foresight Report put global food and farming under the spotlight and the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’ in UK farming systems is investigated at the Allerton Project.
Less soil movement with the Dale Eco-Drill.
To address some of these issues, our most recent change in cultivation strategy took place in 2013 with a shift towards direct drilling. Tracks replaced tyres on the combine, a trash rake is used to assist weed germination, and a purpose-built direct drill is the primary cultivation tool. The challenge of blackgrass and slugs will be thoroughly examined in the years to come. As the pressure to produce more food from a finite land resource increases, new technology will help us improve efficiency.
Refining the system
In 2016 we sacrificed tracks for a lighter tractor, which meant we are travelling with four tonnes less weight across the fields.
A more efficient light tractor and a low disturbance sub-soiler will form the main part of our cultivation strategy.
The new Tier 4 engine should also give us fuel efficiencies and less exhaust emissions. With attention to detail on tractor tyre pressures and a low disturbance sub-soiler allowing us to keep water moving towards our drains we should continue to improve the health of our soils.