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 Cover crop pilot aims to reduce nitrate leaching

26 April 19

Cover crop pilot aims to reduce nitrate leaching

 

Cover crops

Nitrate occurs naturally in water. However, in some of our sources concentrations are increasing. Nitrate has a drinking water standard of 50mg/l – for sources that exceed this limit we rely on costly treatment and/or blending to bring concentrations back down.

Nutrient management on UK farms has vastly improved in recent decades, yet in some of our groundwater catchments agricultural activities are the main source of nitrate leaching. Nitrogen is one of the most expensive inputs for arable farms, so it’s not something farmers willingly throw down the drain.

The trouble is, wherever soil is left bare throughout the winter months (a common occurrence on UK farms), residual nitrate in the soil has the potential to leach into groundwater.

But if farmers plant up the land with a cover crop – which isn’t harvested and is grown primarily to improve the soil – nitrate leaching can be vastly reduced. By growing cover crops farmers are providing us with an ecosystem service (capturing up to 50kg of nitrogen per hectare) while also enhancing their soils, enhancing biodiversity and reducing sediment loss to rivers.

In May the Catchment Management team will pilot a project in a vulnerable part of the upper Lee catchment. Using the EnTrade reverse auction catchment trading platform, the pilot will encourage farmers to bid for a pot of money to grow cover crops in the catchment. It has generated a lot of interest and positive feedback from farmers, with more than 100 attending a series of Affinity Water cover crop events and visiting our cover crop demonstration trials during the winter.

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