A PROJECT which aims to help eliminate the use of nitrogen fertilisers has been awarded £3.3million. 

The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) has given the funding to the NUE-Leg project (Nitrogen Utilisation Efficiency – Legume), which aims to help combat the dependence of grassland farming on applied nitrogen fertlisers. 

The project aims to uses 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 varities have been developed by Germinal and Aberystwyth University, which improve the efficiency of protein uptake by cattle from grassland and reduce emissions of ammonia. Other varieties have been developed which contain tannins that reduce methane emissions by cattle.

Dr Christina Marley, from IBERS at Aberystwyth University, said: “This project could really help cut the use of fertilisers and agricultural emissions. The aim is to make the most of the ability of clovers and other legumes to increase nitrogen levels naturally in UK grasslands.

"We are really looking forward to working together with livestock farmers to understand how best to use these new legumes within real farming systems. There is so much potential in these adaptations to some of our native plants, as we, as a society, undertake a wider collective effort to tackle climate change.”

The objective of NUE-Leg is to 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. This will mean additional chemical nitrogen fertilisers needed for grass growth can be largely eliminated. 

Paul Billings, managing director of Germinal UK & Ireland, said: "Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for growing grass. Without it we could not grow the grass we need to feed our livestock and produce the dairy and meat products we need.

"However, nitrogen fertilisers are also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in their manufacture and transport, and from in-field losses such as nitrous oxide and ammonia. They are also a source of nitrate losses to our waterways. They are expensive and farmers have seen huge volatility in prices, particularly in the last two years when price fluctuations have been around 300%.      

South West Farmer: Paul Billings and William Gilbert. Image: GerminalPaul Billings and William Gilbert. Image: Germinal (Image: Germinal)

"Governments around the world have rightly said that we need to reduce our reliance on nitrogen fertilisers. We need a solution. Legumes such as white and red clovers grown with grass can fix nitrogen from the air, but with no emissions.

"A current grass sward with a good clover content could fix on average between 100 and 150 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year. The clover will use about 75 kg of this for itself. The rest is available to the grass.

"But what if we could maximise the capacity of clovers to fix nitrogen by ensuring we have enough clovers that can persist in the sward, and match them with the right soil microbes and the right nutrition? We also need to wrap this up in a management approach that supports farmers and gives them the tools and information they need to make this work in a commercial setting, and make a profit.

"This is what we want to achieve with project NUE-Leg. We want 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 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.

South West Farmer: Clover. Image: LEAFClover. Image: LEAF (Image: LEAF)

Dan Stevenson, IFM Manager at LEAF, added: “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.”