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Crop Advice & Expertise

Q&A with Director of Allerton Trust Alastair Leake - Crop Focus TV: Episode 5

Join us for the fifth episode of CropFocusTV with Dr Alastair Leake at The Allerton Project, where we discuss the techniques that can both increase agricultural productivity and promote biodiversity.

Watch out for the next edition coming your way – subscribe to our channel on YouTube for all our latest video content.

If you have any questions, please contact your local CTM or Tweet @Bayer4CropsUK.

Intro: The Allerton Project

Julian: Good morning Alastair, it’s fantastic to be here at the Allerton Project somewhere in deepest, darkest Leicestershire. Can you tell me a little bit about the Allerton Project?

Alastair: Well I’m the Project Manager for the Allerton Project. The project was set up 26 years ago by the late Lord and Lady Allerton and they left us with 2 simple objectives. The first was to demonstrate that productive farming and the environment could go hand in hand and secondly, that that could be profitable too.

Julian: And can it?

Alastair: Yes I think we’ve shown that by managing both very professionally you can achieve that.

Julian: Okay so what have you done here to make a difference or to give you that view that you can have both?

Alastair: I think the key thing is to identify the areas of the farm which are not most agriculturally productive and then find the very best use of that to make them environmentally productive. In so doing, you increase the benefit to the environment, both in terms of clean water, towards wildlife, but also you improve the productivity of the agricultural land and that should make the farm more profitable which of course is in the interest of all farmers.

Julian: So although this is obviously a project, it’s important that it’s productive.

Alastair: Absolutely, I think we need to bear in mind that the amount of land to feed each one of us on this planet has dropped from 2 acres per person to 0.5 acre per person in just the last 50 years and it’s still going down. So turning farmland into nature reserves is not a progressive way for us to deal with that problem. Taking less productive land out of farming and using it for wildlife, while concentrating on the more productive land to increase crop yields seems to me to make much more sense.

Julian: And do you enjoy being involved in this project?

Alastair: Yes I think it’s a really great challenge to try and marry those two. I think there has long been a perception that intensive agriculture and biodiversity cannot co-exist so it’s enormously satisfying to break that myth and show that they can.

Julian: Thanks Alastair, let’s go and have a look at that in a little bit more detail.

Alastair: Certainly.


Technical Focus: How to improve your wildlife strips, now and in the future

Julian: Well Alastair, looks like a fantastic wildlife strip along here. What sort of width would this be?

Alastair: Well this is about 20 metres, we put it at the side of the field because we know that’s the least productive part of the field and therefore this area of the farm is most willing to give up from cropping.

Julian: Okay and does it work?

Alastair: Oh yes, this works really well. This provides seed for birds during the winter time. Remember we now plough most of our winter stubble so there’s very little food left on the surface. This provides an ideal substitute for that loss of food.

Julian: Okay and with all the discussions around Brexit and the like, clearly it’s really important that this sort of work goes on, that we continue to have these sorts of strips around the farms.

Alastair: Absolutely and actually what we need is more farmers doing it. I think one of the failures of the last schemes was too much red tape, fear of inspection. This put farmers off entering the scheme and doing things like this. So if we take those things away, getting more farmers in will deliver more seed for birds.

Julian: Okay and there’s been a lot of talk around ‘should farmers be incentivised for doing the work or should it be around delivering something tangible? What’s your view on it?

Alastair: Well I think we really need to do both. You know this year’s been a particularly challenging year because it’s dry. If I’m going to take land out of production, spend money on seed to grow a crop for birds, if the crop fails, I really don’t want to be in a position where I’m not paid anything for doing it, so there has to be a base payment to the farmer for actually doing it. But I think you will get even better results if you provide a reward for the outcomes in terms of producing more seed.

Julian: So you reckon both would work?

Alastair: I think both need to go hand in hand.

Julian: Okay and are you optimistic that post-Brexit we’ll get that sort of framework that allows you the freedom to go forward?

Alastair: Well government are working very hard with stakeholders at the moment to do that and I really believe that they’re listening to what the industry feels it needs so I’m optimistic that we can design something which delivers more for nature.


Technical Focus: Can no-till improve soil health?

Mike: So Alastair, we’re in a barley field that’s obviously just been harvested. What’s been happening in this field?

Alastair: Well this field’s been in long-term arable rotation but 5 years ago we put a grass ley in here for 3 years, that was followed by a crop of wheat and then we’ve gone into a crop of barley. A key part of this is changing the crop tillage system that we’ve been using.

Mike: So tell me a bit more about that, what have you been doing?

Alastair: Well some parts of the field are being ploughed and other parts are being zero tilled. We’re trying to compare those 2 systems both in terms of cost and productivity but the impact on other agronomic factors.

Mike: And is grass-weeds one of those agronomic factors?

Alastair: Yes absolutely. Black-grass is a major problem for a lot of farmers at the moment and we need to find multiple ways of dealing with that. One of the ways is to use the rotation but also competitive varieties, spring and autumn drilling dates, varying those is helpful too.

Mike: And have you found because you had the grass ley that actually you’ve come into a clean field as such and that’s helped between the 2 tillage systems?

Alastair: Absolutely, enormously helpful. A 3 year ley allows the ground to rest from black-grass. I think that zero till has the greatest potential to have an impact here. When you plough you inevitably bring some of the final dormant black-grass seeds up, whereas when they’re left on the surface, they’re left to die or germinate and not produce seed.

Mike: Okay and overall on the farm is black-grass increasing, decreasing? How do you see it?

Alastair: I would say that for the first time in 10 years, the black-grass situation on the farm now is better than it’s been before so I think that by using multiple techniques, we are starting to turn the tide back on black-grass.

Mike: Well that’s good news.

Alastair: It is, very good news.


Top Tip: How to improve song bird populations

Julian: So Alastair, we’re here at the top of the hill with a backdrop of, again some work that you’re doing to increase songbirds and you have this idea of a 3 pillar approach, maybe you could just explain that to me?

Alastair: Yes we have a belief that there are 3 things which are critical to increase our songbird numbers on British farms. The first is the provision of food during the winter time. There is no doubt that modern farming methods have reduced the amount of food that’s available, so supplementary feeding particularly from January through to May. Secondly, the provision of pollen and nectar to provide insects – this particularly during the summer time because we know that farmland birds need an insect-rich diet when they are chicks. And finally, the control of predators during the nesting season, particularly magpies and crows but also foxes, which have a profound impact on ground nesting birds.

Julian: And of those, which is the more important or is there sort of 2 or more that make the difference?

Alastair: It’s a very good question and one that we’re obviously asked by people who want to make sure that when they’re putting effort into farmland bird recovery, they’re doing the right thing. The truth is that each of those measures offers some help to the species and I can’t give you any particular weight as to how you would do that but there is no doubt that doing all 3 together gives the best result of all.

Julian: Okay and I’m quite interested in that supplementary, sort of the overwintering supplementary feeding. Where did that idea come from and is it something that really does make a difference?

Alastair: Yes well the idea came from the fact that we watched her, hoppers in winter time, in fact we filmed them using night vision CCTV cameras and we identified that game feeders were being used between 30-50% of the time by farmland birds so this told us there was probably a shortage of food out there in the wider countryside and so we started to supplementary feed our birds and this resulted in an increase in the population.

Julian: Okay so you’ve seen that on this farm?

Alastair: Absolutely and as you know, it is a measure which has now been included in environmental stewardship, based on that evidence gathered here that allows other farmers to be paid to take on that measure.

Julian: Wow that’s fantastic.

Alastair: It’s great news.

Julian: Yeah it’s good.


Technical Focus: Using no-till in wheat to improve productivity and biodiversity

Mike: So Alastair, we’re in this field of wheat, it’s obviously almost ready for harvest. Can you tell me a little bit about how you have established this crop?

Alastair: Yes well this is a pioneering field because it’s been in zero till now for 8 years. What we’re trying to do is to see if we can cut production costs, so reduce the amount of soil movement that we do, reduce the size of our tractors and reduce the amount of diesel that we use in establishing the crop and what this is showing is that agriculturally we can do that.

Mike: And are you measuring any other things in the field in terms of the impact of no-till?

Alastair: Well you won’t be surprised to learn that of course the impact on the environment is very important to us and what we’re finding is that the earthworm numbers have increased from about 300 per m3 up to about 700 and that the water infiltration is greatly better than it did before and I think this is really important going forward, dealing with extremes of weather is going to be critical to farming businesses, being able to get through wet periods effectively but also surviving droughts will determine the productivity of farms.

Mike: And do you think those earthworm numbers, which sound incredible, are they absolutely really helping in terms of the productivity of the field?

Alastair: I think they do several things – the first thing is they recycle the nutrients and make them available to the crop and secondly, they increase the amount of air space in the soil and of course that air space becomes water space when it rains a lot, which reduces the amount of run-off that you get but also that forms a reservoir of water when you go into dry periods and the crop can access that water and keep growing. So I think they play an enormous part in proving the resilience of our farming system.

Mike: Okay that’s really interesting, thanks Alastair.

Alastair: Thank you Mike.


Julian: So Mike, what did you think of today?

Mike: Well I think it’s really good isn’t it? Alastair’s fantastic and the work that he’s doing here is just really, really fascinating. What did you think Jules?

Julian: Well from my perspective, it’s such a fantastic example of the ability to do not just productive agriculture and not just promoting wildlife but actually having the two together and not preserving wildlife but actually generating more of it. It’s just an amazing situation and I can see it as the future of farming.

Mike: Yeah I totally agree Jules. Well that’s it for CropFocusTV this time. Stay tuned for the next episode coming soon.

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