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Living mulches covering sustainability

Research has shown that living mulches can address multiple key challenges being faced by the arable sector, including soil erosion control and surface water pollution reduction. They can provide a range of soil benefits, including greater productivity, soil fertility, added organic matter, and improved soil structure and tilth. Additionally, living mulches have also been shown to have positive impacts on soil biotic health, for example on earthworms and micro- and macro-fauna, while helping to reduce the pest population and weed burdens on crops. Where leguminous living mulches are used and managed well, farmers can also expect them to contribute to soil nitrogen availability. In all, these benefits could help lead towards reduced conventional inputs into a cropping system, while supporting environmental diversity. Living mulches therefore represent a ‘multifunctional’ potential solution both for future arable production and the environment.

 

The STC Case Study within TRUE will be looking at ways in which in-crop clover living mulches can be managed during crop growing seasons, with a particular attention to overcoming weed risks, enhancing soil organic matter / nitrogen content and generally improving the sustainability of cropping systems. The aim is to investigate these management options in a range of broad-acre crops (such as spring cereals, oilseed rape, maize and sugar beet), and to devise these options in such a way that they can be applied to both large- and small-scale fields and production. As part of this Case Study, new machinery solutions with the potential to optimise living mulch management and crop agronomy will be developed and then trialled across multiple crops.

 

Over the spring months, a clover living mulch will be established alongside several broad-acre crops using strip-till technology at the STC field site. Strip-tilling is a conservation and minimum tillage technique, where soil is tilled and therefore disturbed only in a strip into which crop seed is drilled, thus maximising the environmental benefits of a living mulch, which once established can be left uncultivated between crop ‘bands’. The established platform will be used to assess a range of agronomic and soil health indicators to quantify the impact of the living mulch use in response to the management and machinery options developed as part of the Case Study. Exciting times ahead!

A precision seed drill at work in a clover living mulch.
A precision seed drill at work in a clover living mulch.

Authors: J.A. Banfield-Zanin & D.R. Georg, Stockbridge Technology Centre, Cawood, Selby, North Yorkshire, YO8 3TZ

 


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