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Farm Updates November 2022

Soil Sampling

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

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.

Incorporating Straw

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!

Cover Crops

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!


June 2022

 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.

Winter Wheat

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.

Other Crops

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.