Can living mulches reduce need for inputs?

Farmers are investigating whether they can limit ploughing or chemical inputs by growing a permanent living mulch beneath their arable crops in a new Innovative Farmers field lab.

Both organic and non-organic farmers are leading the on-farm research as they are keen to learn from each other to help establish organic no-till farming systems or lower inputs to conventional no-till systems. It is hoped the understory will reduce or eliminate chemical fertilisers and herbicides, by controlling weeds whilst also fixing nitrogen.

Through the Innovative Farmers programme, six farms have teamed up with the knowledge exchange team at AHDB and researchers from the Organic Research Centre to co-design a practical trial that assesses the impacts of growing clover as an understory to their usual arable crops. The trial has also received funding from Organic Arable who believe the technique, if proved effective, could be a revolutionary” method for organic cereal farmers.

Farmer perspective

Clive Bailye, partner at TWB Farms in Staffordshire, is a conventional farmer who moved to conservation agriculture 15 years ago. He said: “For me, finding out how we can do organic no till without livestock is like the holy grail of arable farming. Environmentally our farm has transformed, and our yields and crop consistency have improved – although we have made lots of changes so it’s not just down to the no-till system. But it has made a big difference and we have cut out insecticide use completely. I’m hoping by using this clover understory to build fertility we will get even more healthy soil biology and we can stop using the fungicides and nitrogen fertiliser.

“The nice thing about this field lab is it’s bringing learnings from both the organic and conventional sides together to cover common goals. Finding that middle ground and sharing knowledge will help us all to find the right solutions. Larger, on-farm trials like this are more realistic because you’re subjected to the impacts that a real farm must deal with. And it’s bringing the farmers and researchers together - knowledge exchange is really important but it’s also key to quantify what you’re doing.”

Clive interrow drilling clover into his cash crop this spring

The trial

The new living mulch systems will be compared to each farm’s typical farming practice as a control, and the difference between the two systems will be compared across farms.

The farmers are under sowing white clover into cereal crops this Spring to establish a long-term living mulch that will then be grazed or mowed hard after harvest and prior to direct drilling of a  cash crop in the autumn - or potentially next spring.

Field data on cash and cover crop and weeds will be collected as well as soil nutrient data, with yield and grain quality of the cash crop also measured.

Benefits of living mulches

It is hoped that by using a permanent living mulch, no till farmers can also reduce reliance on glyphosate to make the system work, as it removes any need to terminate temporary cover crops.

Living mulch systems can also bring wider environmental benefits, such as improving soil health and reducing erosion, regulating pests and disease, and increasing biodiversity, which is hoped will in turn promote the economics associated with the cash crop.

Helen Aldis, programme manager for Innovative Farmers, said: “We know there can be huge benefits to soil, biodiversity and productivity by using both organic and no-till farming approaches, but both come with their own set of challenges. By growing a living mulch, we are hoping it might address key sustainability challenges for all types of farmers in keeping soil disturbance and chemical inputs to a minimum. It is crucial that research into sustainable farming solutions is done on real farms so we can see the impacts this approach might have on real farm businesses. With the farmers’ expert knowledge combined with the scientific rigor of the ORC and AHDB researchers, we are excited to see how this group of farmers get on.”

Get involved in your own farmer-led research

To keep informed of how this field lab and others are progressing sign up and become a member of the Innovative Farmers network. Got your own idea for a field lab? Then contact the team to find out how to get involved.


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