Everyone has heard of Ballymaloe, known for its great restaurant and accommodation at Ballymaloe House; its famous chefs. But chief among those acclaimed names should be Darren Allen.
The tillage farmer is making a lot of sensible and subtle changes that are impacting the farm’s sustainability. So good are his climate targets that it is casually dropped in at the end of the walk that Darren’s nitrogen use efficiency is 98.5%.
Let’s put that into perspective. Specialist tillage farms have a nitrogen use efficiency of 76.5%. Livestock farms have a nitrogen use efficiency of 20% to 25%.
So, almost all of the nitrogen used on Darren’s farm in 2022 was used by the crop and wasn’t lost to water or to the air.
Contributing to that efficiency is good soil fertility, the use of organic manures, cover crops which take up the nitrogen after the cash crop and protected urea.
Darren is the current farmer at Ballymaloe. His father Rory keeps an eye on things and offers advice, but over the past 15 years or so Darren has made his own changes and improved the farm’s sustainability.
He is now focused on reducing his growing costs on the farm and with this reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protecting water quality.
A lot of continuous wheat was grown on the farm previously at a yield of about 3t/ac and one thing that has been integral to improving the farm’s sustainability has been the introduction of a good crop rotation.
Darren grows spring beans and oilseed rape as break crops on the farm. He said he now has fairly consistent yields across the farm and he is touching 5t/ac on his winter wheat crops.
Darren said beans have been a great addition to the farm.
“I’m seeing a massive difference in soil quality after that crop. Rotation has been massive,” he explained.
The biggest yield robber that Darren sees on the farm is water lying on the land and because of this he has tried to grow good cover crops to help the soil’s structure.
In a field beside the farmyard, we could see large floods and the ground was wet, but the field opposite had a cover crop and was fairly dry underfoot.
It was a three-way mix of oats, phacelia and vetch planted after winter wheat which had received pig slurry.
More elaborate seed mixes were planted in some fields, but this mix was doing a great job and was cost effective. The ground was completely covered and coping well with the recent wet weather.
It was workable when dug and earthworms were clear to see. A small corner of the field had acted as an overflow car park for the Ballymaloe Craft Fair at the weekend and there was hardly a mark to be seen from the cars.
Darren said he has learned to get cover crops in early to get enough biomass to grow. He doesn’t spend too much money on their establishment either. Seeds were spread with a fertiliser spreader, disced in and rolled.
He commented that cover crops allow him to get into a field without using a plough. Traditionally, crops have been established with ploughing, tilling and sowing, but Darren is moving to minimum tillage and used a strip till drill in 2023.
Darren sprays and spreads fertiliser himself, but sowing and harvesting are contracted out. He said he does not have shiny metal syndrome, but was considering carrying out his own harvesting and baling due to the risk of blackgrass being brought onto the farm.
Improved nitrogen use efficiency
A big cost on the farm is fertiliser and Darren has taken a number of different measures to improve his nitrogen use efficiency.
The first thing to say is that the majority of his soils are in good condition. Forty-four per cent of soils on the farm are at optimum levels of soil fertility with a pH of over 6.2 and phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) indexes of 3. This is 26% ahead of the national average.
Darren is importing organic manures and reducing his chemical nitrogen requirement by 30kg N/ha as a result. Slurry was applied using low emissions slurry spreading equipment. This reduced his N costs by €45/ha this year.
In 2023, he applied 228,000 gallons of slurry to his land. In 2022 and 2023, spring beans made up 15% and 13%, respectively, of the farm’s cropping area.
These crops did not receive any artificial nitrogen.
In 2022, protected urea was used as a chemical nitrogen source. In 2023, all chemical nitrogen was applied as protected urea.
After harvest 53% of the straw was chopped in 2022 and each year Darren aims to plant cover crops on 75-80% of his land.
This is all helping to improve soil structure and water infiltration as well as saving on nutrients and taking up excess nutrients from the soil.
Other actions to protect water quality on the farm include buffer strips, riparian margins and wild bird cover.
The wild bird cover was the next stop along the way on our walk. It has been in place for seven or eight years and owl boxes are about to be put up by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
A bird survey was carried out on the farm and unbelievably three species of owls were recorded on the farm in one night. This is a really good sign of healthy habitats on the farm as in order to have the owls you need vibrant biodiversity in the soil and on the ground to provide food for them to eat.
Paul Moore, a nearby tillage farmer and member of Birdwatch Ireland, said that wild bird cover is the best habitat to attract birds and he noted that uncultivated over-winter stubble was the next best habitat, especially for endangered birds dependent on tillage. Catch crops and winter cereals are next in line for appropriate habitats.
An ash plantation on the farm has unfortunately been affected by ash dieback and Darren has been advised to clearfell the trees and re plant.
Pigs and hens
Pigs are fattened outdoors beside the wild bird cover and Darren said that they are fed grain from the farm. About 100 pigs are fattened each year on the farm for the restaurant at Ballymaloe House Hotel.
Hens are also providing eggs to the hotel, but Darren explained he has not managed to get the diet right from grain grown on the farm so feed is bought in.
Saving three million litres of oil with straw
In the mid-1980s, Darren’s father Rory went to the Spring Show in the RDS and came home with a biomass burner. That burner lasted 20 years and the next one lasted 18 years. The third burner was working away on our visit.
Straw is the main material feeding the burner, but it can take timber and woodchip.
Over that time, the Allens estimate that they have saved about three million litres of oil as they would use about 200 litres per day to heat the hotel, which seats about 100 people every night in the restaurant, the café, shop, events centre and the houses on the farm.
About 2.5 big square bales go through the machine every day. The costs are estimated at about €80-100/day to run it. In the harvest time, about 2,000t of grain is dried on the farm with heat from the burner as well.
Wheaten straw was being used during our visit. Last year, rye straw was used but this year a merchant wanted rye straw so the Allens swapped their rye bales for wheaten straw. They usually chop their spring barley straw as it is often hard to save at the end of the season.
Oilseed rape straw was used in the burner previously, but it now works out better to chop this straw under the Straw Incorporation Measure.
The burner also creates ash which is spread back on the land. Darren said it’s 15 years since they bought artificial phosphorus and potassium on the farm as P and K requirements are coming from pig slurry, cattle slurry and ash. When ash is spread, it goes out at about 0.5t/ac.
It really is a circular system.
Solar panels on the farm sheds also provide about one-third of the electricity requirement for all of the facilities in Ballymaloe.
Darren works closely with Teagasc advisers keeping farm records in order to calculate figures such as his nitrogen-use efficiency, carbon footprint and his farm profits. He aims to improve the farm’s sustainability and record the changes as part of the Signpost Programme.