LEAF part of industry project to transform grassland dairy and meat production by eliminating dependence on nitrogen fertilisers

16 January, 24
LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) has today announced its involvement in a major UK Department of the Environment

LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) has today announced its involvement in a major UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on-farm trial and research project looking to eliminate the dependence of UK grassland farming on applied nitrogen fertilisers.

The project, called Project ‘NUE-Leg’, will exploit major innovations in plant breeding, soil microbiology, nutrition and grassland management to achieve improvements in the capacities of legumes, such as white and red clovers, in combination with soil microbes, to fix nitrogen from fresh air and make this available to grasslands. New proprietary legume varieties have also been developed by Germinal and Aberystwyth University that improve the efficiency of protein uptake by cattle from grassland thereby reducing emissions of ammonia. Other varieties have been developed which contain tannins that reduce methane emissions by cattle.

The objective of Project ‘NUE-Leg’ is to create the conditions in commercial farm settings that will enable clover to fix up to 300 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year, a large portion of which will be available for grass growth. At these levels, additional chemical nitrogen fertilisers needed for grass growth can largely be eliminated.

Speaking on the announcement today, Dan Stevenson, IFM Manager at LEAF, said:

“We are delighted to be involved in this important industry wide project. The scale and breadth of the expertise of the partners, bringing together cutting-edge research capability, innovative demonstration, and knowledge exchange approaches together with practical, grass roots insights from farmers on the ground is extremely powerful. This project is a major step forward in helping minimise carbon footprints, reducing reliance on chemical fertiliser inputs, decreasing methane outputs of livestock as well as increasing the environmental efficiency of forage legume-grass cropping systems for milk and meat production.

We are hugely excited to be working together with a number of our Demonstration Farmers, Innovation Centres and industry partners as part of the project. It represents the very best of industry collaboration, bringing together different actors across the food supply chain working together towards shared objectives. It is firmly rooted in the practical realities of farming – addressing both economic and environmental performance whilst having important knock-ons for soil health and fertility whilst linking well with all the elements of an Integrated Farm Management approach. We cannot wait to get started.”

Welcoming the DEFRA Award on behalf of ‘NUE-Leg’ Project Partners, Mr. Paul Billings, Managing Director, Germinal UK & Ireland, added:

“Project NUE-Leg seeks to achieve a threefold increase in the capacity of clovers to fix atmospheric nitrogen up to 300 kg nitrogen per hectare per year and thereby eliminate the need for chemical nitrogen fertilisers.

This project has the potential to be truly transformative for grassland farming in the UK and globally. It could be a game-changer in both cutting emissions and in supporting farm profitability. In this context, we are very grateful to the UK Government for this funding award which allows this important project to proceed to its next on-farm testing and proving phase.”

Project NUE-Leg has drawn together scientific expertise and global leaders in plant breeding and soil microbiology, agronomy, carbon emissions and the farming and food supply chain. Project partners include Aberystwyth University, Germinal, Origin Enterprises, the James Hutton Institute, Agrecalc, Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF), Dovecote Farm, Pilgrim’s Pride, Müller UK & Ireland and the CIEL Innovation Centre.

Project ‘NUE-Leg’ will deploy a new approach to fertilising and managing grasslands. At the heart of the project are new legumes bred by Germinal Horizon at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), which is part of Aberystwyth University. These include a proprietary hybrid clover known as ‘DoubleRoot’ and a new red clover called ‘RedRunner’. DoubleRoot legumes show greater persistence in grasslands. RedRunner legumes show improved efficiency of protein uptake by livestock resulting in lower emissions of ammonia. A further innovation is the adaption of a native UK hedgerow plant called Birdsfoot Trefoil to pasture and grazing conditions in order to utilise its tannin content to reduce methane emissions by ruminant animals.

Soil microbes, called rhizobia, have been specially selected and will be matched with these new legume varieties to help maximise their nitrogen fixing capacity. These innovations will be further enhanced with tailored plant nutritional packages from Origin Fertilisers matched to soil status and crop requirements that support the conditions needed to maximise nitrogen fixing from fresh air.

Nitrogen fertilisers are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and a significant cause of water pollution. 55% of the land area of England is within Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. Around 210,000 tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers used in grasslands in England generate approximately 700,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Ruminant livestock (cattle and sheep) account for 45% of the UK’s emissions of methane. Nitrogen fertilisers are also a major cost to UK farmers and have seen huge volatility in recent years, including price increases of 300% on 2021 levels following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2022.

The aim of Project ‘NUE-Leg’ is to create the conditions in commercial farming settings that no additional chemical nitrogen fertilisers will be required for grass. Furthermore, every 100 kgN/ha/yr fixed on a 200ha farm will save £22,000/yr. in costs and offset 66t of CO2eq GHG emissions.

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