Darren Allen Farm Updates
On a recent visit to Ballymaloe Farm near Shanagarry in East Cork, John Mahon, Teagasc Signpost Tillage Advisor caught up with Darren Allen who updated him on progress to date through what has proven to be quite a difficult spring campaign.
We first began our discussion regarding differences which are beginning to show from the establishment systems employed to sow the winter crops back in October 2022. During our walk Darren was able to point out crop growth differences, backed up by recent drone footage, which highlighted where winter wheat was visibly poorer in an area where ploughing had come to a halt one day following heavy rainfall. Even when sown in what appeared to be ideal conditions a few days later, the damage below the ground he feels is holding the crop back and he expects this wheat to yield lower on that part of the field. In a second winter wheat crop which was marginal for ploughing at the time, he disc cultivated ahead of the one-pass on one side which in hindsight has proven to be the wrong decision as he feels it only made the situation worse and the headlands particularly have suffered due to the extra traffic. These, he says, are all learning curves, but highlights how getting it right at establishment is key to having healthy crops at this time of the year.
On a positive note he has been trialling strip-till establishment with a local contractor, both with some of his winter cereals and again with spring beans sown at the end of February. These crops looked very well, with even establishment, good rooting structure, and seemed to be taking full value of the high soil fertility which we wrote about in last Novembers issue. He feels certain that this is a direction he needs to further explore when establishing his crops, while acknowledging that there are issues like grass weeds which he will have to be more vigilant of, particularly sterile brome which can be prevalent on his medium to heavy clay soils. However a combination of well-timed cultural control methods and pre-emergence herbicide can be employed to minimise the problem.
We continued on to a trial which is being conducted as part of the Signpost programme with the help of Darren’s Dairygold agronomist Liam. The entire field of approximately 17 hectares has been sown to Graham winter wheat. It has received an in-crop application of pig slurry at 2,400 gals/acre at the beginning of March. Three establishment systems: plough & one-pass, min-till and strip-till are being compared using convention chemical nitrogen top-up in the form of protected urea, while a second trial is on-going on a section of strip-till where conventional chemical nitrogen is being compared to commercially available alternative nitrogen fertiliser sources which offer savings in nitrogen use rate, which would be of major benefit on this farm. Visual differences were apparent between the different treatments at this stage, but this trial will be brought to harvest so we wait with anticipation to see and report on the various results found. However, we must remember this will be only one result, in one field, in one year, but will give a fair indication of the value of the newer alternatives potential from a cost saving and environmental benefit point of view.
Elsewhere on the farm all work is up to date with crops looking good. Winter wheat T2 fungicides are applied and working, winter oilseed rape received the fungicide Filan at 10% petal fall for sclerotinia control due to the wet weather at that time, the spring beans have received their first of two fungicide applications for chocolate spot and downy mildew control, and Darren is learning as he goes with winter rye as it is the first year he grew this crop. The rye has had an outbreak of brown rust which thankfully has being controlled by Liam, but Darren believes this crop has potential to reduce his pesticide use and spend going forward and may have a place in future rotational plans on the farm. Elsewhere, the spring barley sown on the 15th April has emerged and already is showing signs of BYDV infection, which hopefully will not develop too much, despite being sprayed with an aphicide.
Darren’s mind is now starting to focus on the harvest preparations he says and also reminded me that he and all tillage farmers should take a break before they face into the busy time ahead.
Farm Update November 2022
With autumn planting completed and the 2023 winter crops well up over ground at Ballymaloe Farm, Tillage Signpost farmer Darren Allen and his tillage adviser, Ciara O’Donovan sit down to review what has been a very busy and interesting first year for both of them in the Teagasc Signpost Programme.
We began our journey with one of the most important jobs on any farm at the beginning of the year, by soil sampling the entire farm. Darren closely monitors the soil fertility on his farm by getting a fresh set of soil samples taken every 2 years. Achieving and maintaining optimum soil fertility is the first step to improving financial and environmental sustainability on the farm, as it is paramount to maximising nutrient use efficiency and sustaining high crop yield potential year on year.
Figure 1 gives a summary of the current soil fertility status on Darren’s farm. Excluding the small area of grassland, the fertility of the tillage ground at Ballymaloe Farm is well above national average.
Approximately 45% of the farm is at the agronomic optimum, which takes into account soils with sufficient available nutrients for optimum plant growth, i.e. P and K Index ≥ 3. The national average is only 18% in this regard.
When we analysed the tillage area from a “sustainable soil fertility” perspective, approximately 30% of Darren’s soils are at the optimum. This measure of soil fertility excludes soils with very high levels of P, i.e. P Index 4, which pose a higher risk for P loss to water. Darren’s figures compare very well to the average across all farms in the Teagasc Signpost programme, of which 39% and 5% are at the agronomic and sustainability optimum, respectively.
Soil carbon was analysed in the top 10cm and initial results show that 73% of the fields in Tillage Signpost programme have 2-4% soil carbon. Soil carbon is an important element of healthy soils by contributing to good soil structure, biological activity, nutrient recycling and storage. So in addition to replacing some expensive chemical fertiliser, Darren’s in-crop application of pig slurry for fertilising crops, offers him the opportunity to supply valuable soil carbon to continuous tillage soils. Carbon is often the forgotten nutrient especially on continuous soils and a valuable nutrient for sustaining high yielding crops. Figure 2 shows the nutrient value of the pig slurry that was applied by Low Emission Slurry Spreading (LESS) equipment to Darren’s growing crop of winter wheat in March 2022. LESS techniques combined with the correct timing of application have been shown to decrease ammonia emissions by up to 30% compared with splash-plate application, which is better for the environment and for Darren’s bottom line, through reduced chemical N application.
Another key soil related action that Darren carried out this year which contributed to the environmental and financial sustainability of his farm was the incorporation of chopped straw post-harvest. There are multiple benefits to straw incorporation on tillage farms. Firstly, it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the sequestration of carbon. Secondly, where the straw market is weak and where fertiliser prices are high, there comes the huge benefit of reducing Darren’s reliance on imported chemical fertilisers. About 50% of a crop’s K uptake remains in the straw at harvest time and incorporating this back into the soil helps maintain the soil reserves as well as feeding soil biology such as earthworms. Such is the way with many tillage farms, the supply of organic manures is very limited, so for Darren, his chopped straw is the equivalent of a sprinkling of farmyard manure without the smell, which has certainly helped him achieve a soil K index of 3 or 4 on 62% of his farm!
Another action carried out on by Darren on his farm in 2022 was the use of cover crops in his fields earmarked for spring crops. In terms of sustainability, the benefits of cover crops on tillage farms is two-fold. Primarily they help to prevent the loss of nutrients from tillage soils to water over the winter and secondly, they act as living soil conditioners as they add some organic matter, improve structure and aid water infiltration. The cover crop mix used by Darren comprised of oats, phacelia and vetch, which compliments his crop rotation. On Darren’s heavy soil type, where loss of P by overland flow is a bigger risk than nitrate leaching to ground water, the use of cover crops will help prevent soil erosion, improve soil structure and potentially fix some nitrogen for use by the following spring crops.
This short article cannot do justice to the huge amount of good work being done by Darren, his family and the key stakeholders in his farm business, which work towards making this tillage operation as sustainable as possible. We are still in the early days of the Teagasc Tillage Signpost Programme and plans are already in motion for more interesting on farm trials and improvements at Ballymaloe Farm in 2023 and beyond so… watch this space!
I caught up with Darren Allen of Ballymaloe Farm near Shanagarry in East Cork to talk about how the crops are looking and what his plans are for the next few weeks. Darren and his father Rory farm circa 300 acres of medium to heavy clay soils near Shanagarry in East Cork.
Darren is very happy with his crop of Graham winter wheat. It was sown on 15th October 2021 and establishment was excellent. Recently, and unexpectedly however, symptoms of barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) have appeared in the crop, which is a worry. He has not sprayed for aphids in 10 years. Time will tell if this has had an effect on grain yield at harvest. With strong grain markets, and like many other farmers in the area, they have invested heavily in these crops so it highlights the importance of BYDV research, aphid monitoring and the development of decision support systems for farmers going forward, for maximising financial and environmental sustainability. It got two well timed fungicides for diseases control so far and has 3.2 clean leaves. Ear emergence is underway so the final fungicide or head spray isn’t far away. Pig slurry was applied to some of the standing crop of winter wheat in late March and Darren reckons it provided about 50 units of usable N per acre. There was a noticeable difference in the wheat that got pig slurry and the wheat that got chemical fertiliser only.
Darren is also happy with his winter oilseed rape. The variety is Aurelia. After a heavy grazing from pigeons in early spring, combined with indications of a strong market, inputs were pushed on to achieve growth targets & maximise yield potential. Flowering is more or less finished now and it’s looking well. Darren has two fields of Lynx beans. One strip till drilled in December following a thick catch crops predominantly oats, and the other field was sown conventionally in early March. They are half way through flowering and fairly clean looking at the moment. He will be following up with at least one more fungicide for chocolate spot control depending on how it goes. Darren is also growing some Planet spring malting barley for Dairygold for brewing. He is very happy with how it’s looking at the moment. It got it’s T1 around the 21st of May and he will follow up with the final spray at the ‘paintbrush’ stage in due course.
Over the next few month he is planning to experiment with burning rye straw in the biomass boiler. This is used to heat water for other businesses and buildings at Ballymaloe, such as the hotel. In terms of cropping plans for the autumn and going forward, the results from this experiment and the challenges associated with having a lot of different crops in the rotation will affect his planting decisions for this coming autumn and spring. Budgeting and improving labour efficiency will be high up on the agenda going forward.