The UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has awarded £3.3 million in funding to a major on-farm trial and research project that seeks to eliminate the dependence of UK grassland farming on applied nitrogen fertilisers.
The project, called Project ‘NUE-Leg (Nitrogen, Utilisation Efficiency – Legume), 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 Belfast-headquartered Germinal’s research division 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 cover 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 be largely eliminated.
“Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for growing grass. Without it we could not grow the grass we need to feed out 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 nitrogen oxide and ammonia. They are also a source of nitrate losses to our waterways. They are expensive and farmers have seen huge volatility in pries, particularly in the last two years when price fluctuations have been around 300%.
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 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 Enterprise, the James Hutton Institute, Agrecalc, Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF), Dovecote Farm, Pilgrim’s Pride, Müller UK & Ireland and the CIEL Innovation Centre.
Germinal, which will play an integral role in this project, is an esteemed sixth-generation family company with roots tracing back to 1825 in Belfast. It is a pioneer business at the heart of the evolution of the seed industry.
Integral to the Openfolde family of companies, Germinal’s influence spans the world, with a particular focus on the UK, Ireland and New Zealand. The group employs 108 individuals spread across eight sites.
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 conditions in commercial farming settings that no additional chemical nitrogen fertilisers will be required for grass. Furthermore, every 100kgN/ha/yr fixed on a 200ha farm will save £22,000/yr. in costs and offset 66t of CO2eq GHG emissions.
William Gilbert, Chairman of Germinal and Managing Director at Openfolde added:
“As a sixth-generation company based in Belfast, we are honoured to be part of the collective leading the charge in sustainable agri-food production through the transformative ‘NUE-Leg’ Project. With substantial funding from the UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in collaboration with Innovate UK, our commitment to on-farm testing marks a pivotal moment.
“We are pioneering a new era in grassland farming, eliminating the reliance on nitrogen fertilisers. This project not only propels our company into the vanguard of sustainable agriculture but also positions Northern Ireland as a beacon for climate-benefiting innovations, fostering a legacy of environmental stewardship and progress for generations to come.”