Farmer in field with tablet© Juice/Rex Shutterstock

Farmers are being urged to share knowledge from organic and conventional systems to increase margins and deliver sustainable agriculture.

Agricology, an online project, has been launched to promote sustainable farming practices in way easily digestible for busy farmers.

Balancing the needs of food production while conserving the environment, known as “sustainable intensification”, is one of the key challenges facing the industry.

To this end, Agricology’s website brings together important agricultural research to promote the best ideas from organic farming and integrated conventional farming.

See also: Defra launches £4.5m sustainable intensification project

Three key players have joined forces to launch Agricology – the Daylesford Foundation, the Organic Research Centre and the Allerton Project.

The Daylesford Foundation is actively involved in developing Agricology and has pledged nearly £500,000 to the project over the next five years.

But the project has also attracted a wide range of support from other industry groups, including Niab, Rothamsted Research, Leaf, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (Fwag), Defra, Natural England and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Topics covered by Agricology’s resources will include:

  • Improving soil structure, quality and health
  • Minimising pressure on pests, diseases and weeds
  • Using grassland and home-grown feeds for livestock
  • Reducing antibiotic use
  • Encouraging biodiversity, notably pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Alastair Leake, head of the GWCT’s Allerton Project, based at Loddington, Leicestershire, said: “In the past, conventional farmers have managed to maintain their profits by increasing yield.

“However, we are not increasing yields over time; input costs are going up, but crop prices have been falling. Farmers find themselves squeezed.

“The solution is not to all go organic, but to adopt lots of practices we have learned from organic farming and apply them to conventional systems.

“This may be extending rotations, moving into spring cropping, or working with nature to do the work for us.”

For example, beetle banks in the middle of arable fields can help bring biodiversity back into the landscape and control crop pests, such as aphids.

Beetle banks in an arable field.

Beetle banks in arable fields can provide habitats for insects and ground-nesting birds © Peter Thompson, GWCT

Meanwhile, cover crops and the transition to direct drilling can help make soils more resilient and increase earthworm numbers.

Both were examples of farming practices used at the Allerton Project farm, which are “at the core” of what Agricology is seeking to achieve, said Dr Leake.

Neither involve spending more money on chemicals and machinery, but investing more in what nature can deliver for farmers.

Dr Leake said research had shown an earthworm presence in soils of 400/sq m could increase crop yields by up to 25%.

“Those worms are turning over about 80t of soil each year without me spending a penny on diesel,” added Dr Leake.

Dairy farmer Patrick Holden, a well-known advocate of organic farming and founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, urged all agricultural sectors to work together to share their collective knowledge.

He said: “We all need to tackle the problems of soil depletion, loss of biodiversity and pollution caused by unsustainable farming systems by working with nature, rather than farming in ways which are damaging to the environment and public health.”

Agricology in action

Richard Smith, Daylesford Organic Farm, Gloucestershire: Sainfoin ‘ticks all boxes’

Richard SmithSainfoin is the best fodder legume to meet production needs at Daylesford Organic Farm, says farm manager and Agricology steering group chair Richard Smith.

Sainfoin, a perennial forage legume, was reintroduced into the rotation at Daylesford in 2010, after a 260-year break, due its anti-bloat properties and its ability to thrive in drought conditions.

It thrives in dry, alkaline soils yet delivers a high-yielding crop for livestock, rich in rumen-protected proteins that will not cause bloat.

“Sainfoin is a very palatable forage which is easily digested by the ruminant,” he explains.

Sainfoin is drilled into warm soils around mid-May into a clean seedbed at about a depth of 3-4cm using a standard Kuhn combi-drill.

It is rolled in very tightly using a heavy set of Cambridge rolls. It produces an “extremely bulky” crop and yields 37.5t/ha on farm, outperforming a ryegrass or clover crop, which yields 20-25t/ha.

Sainfoin produces 37.5t of freshweight fodder after a 24-hour wilt with a typical feed analysis of 23% protein and an ME of 13.5.

Lambs grazed on sainfoin perform “fantastically well”, typically putting on a daily liveweight gain of 300-350g. Sainfoin is also a great nectar source for bees.

Mr Smith says sainfoin is now “here to stay” at Daylesford.

Phil Jarvis, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, Allerton Project: Resilient soils

Phill JarvisGood soil health is one of the keys to productive farming at the Allerton Project, says farm manager Phil Jarvis.

To make soils more resilient, rotations have been widened to include cover crops and grass leys with a transition to direct drilling.

To disturb soils as little as possible, a two-pass operation has been developed at the farm in Loddington, Leicestershire.

A low disturbance subsoiler, such as the Sumo LDS, is used to remove compaction.

Crops are then drilled using a direct drill, such as a Dale drill, to allow soils to remain undisturbed.

“Using a Dale drill has much less intervention and minimises soil movement as much as possible,” says Mr Jarvis. “It opens up the slot and pushes the seed in.”

Direct drilling has improved soil structure and increased earthworm numbers, and the farm is beginning to see savings in fuel, machinery and labour costs.