FARMERS LOOKING for a crop to grow on flood-prone land that can improve soil health without the need to apply additional fertiliser may soon have the answer.
In a topical week for flooding, new trials jointly run by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University, and miscanthus supply chain specialists, Terravesta, are examining how miscanthus copes with flooding.
"We know miscanthus has the ability to tolerate flooding when it's mature, but there's a gap in the data about its tolerance during its establishment stage, and this is during the first two years of growth," said Dr Sarah Purdy, a plant physiologist with Aberystwyth University.
"What's really exciting about these trials is that we're also going to analyse the health of the soil when compared to other land-uses," said Dr Purdy.
The trials will see miscanthus grown on commercial flood-prone sites, on plot-scale sites and in controlled environments such as under glass. They will monitor how the crop copes with prolonged flooding, particularly in its establishment stage, and analyse the structure and nutritional health of the soil under the miscanthus field sites.
"We believe miscanthus may be beneficial to soil because this perennial crop has a life cycle lasting up to twenty years in which time the soil experiences no tillage, just an annual harvest," she explained.
"So the soil can maintain its structure which promotes colonisation by beneficial microbes and creatures such as earthworms. Miscanthus has a large under-ground rhizome which recycles nitrogen and other essential nutrients from the stems before harvest so that no fertiliser needs to be applied to achieve high yields.
"The implications for farmers struggling to grow crops on waterlogged land, are vast. If the nutrient recycling benefits offered by miscanthus can still promote healthy growth after a flood event, growers could reduce expenditure on rehabilitating land through fertilizer application by growing this crop.
"The trials will also be able to establish whether the crop has multiple uses, such as increasing soil stability, restoring water-damaged soils and mopping up nutrients on the edges of waterways," she added.
One of the sites testing established crops is also part of another major Miscanthus research project, Optimizing Miscanthus Biomass Production, a study located in multiple locations across Europe, including Aberystwyth.
"This land has been part of the OPTIMISC trials that have been looking at the impact of climate on different genotypes of miscanthus. The sites will be tested as part of the flood plains project, because the Aberystwyth field site is located on low grade land that's waterlogged for most of the winter.
"Despite this, yields from some of the genotypes are very promising even on this land," said Dr Purdy. "We will also be monitoring plant performance and soil health under a mature field site in the Somerset levels that is prone to annual flooding.
"This allows us to scale our research up from laboratory based studies, to plot scale field trials, to commercial plantations."
Miscanthus supply chain specialists, Terravesta, are providing the land to be tested on the Somerset levels.
The firm's southern region manager, Mike Cooper said: "We've believed for a long time that miscanthus improves the quality of soil, and we know it thrives on problem, flood-prone land.
"We need to plan for the future, especially on the Somerset levels, where growers are looking at planting alternative crops."