£3.3m granted for project to cut down dependence on mineral nitrogen fertilisers

A major on-farm trial and research project that seeks to significantly reduce the dependence of UK grassland farming on mineral nitrogen fertilisers has been granted a £3.3 million boost from Defra.

A major on-farm trial and research project that seeks to significantly reduce the dependence of UK grassland farming on mineral nitrogen fertilisers has been granted a £3.3 million boost from Defra.

The project, called ‘NUE-Leg’, has drawn together scientific expertise and global leaders in plant breeding and soil microbiology, agronomy, carbon emissions, farming, and food supply chain.

A UK manufacturer and distributor of fertiliser, Origin Fertilisers, brings to the consortium crop nutrition expertise, alongside colleagues in Origin Digital, who will create the digital platforms required to allow farmers and growers to maximise the potential of the project.

The ‘NUE-Leg’ project will create conditions in commercial farm settings that will enable clover to fix up to 300kg of nitrogen per hectare per year, a large portion of which will be available for grass growth. At these levels, additional mineral nitrogen fertilisers needed for grass growth can be eliminated or significantly reduced, which will place greater emphasis on the importance of other minerals to create a balanced, nutritious crop.

Knowledge and expertise

A key part of the project is to identify the specific nutritional requirements of these new legumes and to develop prescription nutrition programmes using Origin’s nutri-match service.

Origin Fertilisers’ technical director, Peter Scott, explained: “There is a lot to learn in the project about the specific nutrient requirements of these new legume varieties both individually and within grass swards across a range of different soil types.

“Although the legumes will meet all or most of the nitrogen requirement, we also need to consider the other nutrients required to optimise yield, nitrogen uptake and conversion into protein, and the mineral profile required for high-value forage and more sustainable livestock production.”

Extensive knowledge and expertise are set to be used in prescription nutrition to match soil and crop requirements with nutritional inputs. Fertiliser programmes will be developed for both the crop establishment and maintenance phases.

Mr Scott added that prescription nutrition enables farmers to balance the full spectrum of nutrient requirements.

Balance is the key

A wide range of nutrients can be matched to soil and crop requirements.

“Nutrients such as phosphate, potassium, sulphur, calcium and magnesium will be required in varying amounts to meet crop needs. Other nutrients such as sodium will play a role in increasing crop palatability and intake. Micronutrients are essential in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, and we will be developing metallo-catalysts to optimise this process.

“As the sole fertiliser business in the project, our role is to identify the optimum nutrient profiles for these new legumes to provide the balance between optimised crop growth, livestock production and environmental enhancement,” he said.

Origin Digital will also create digital platforms that farmers can use to understand their farm nutrient profiles and requirements, choose the best clover varieties tailored to their soil and farm requirements, and even determine the percentage of clover in their grass through taking a photo on their smartphone.

Origin Digital’s product manager, Devlyn Hardwick, added: “By creating digital tools that help farmers apply the advances in prescription fertilisation and clover breeding in a way that’s tailored to their fields, we can support them to get much of the nitrogen their grass needs from the air instead, as well as saving them time by automating the fertiliser planning and monitoring their clover content from their phone.”

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