Interest is growing in using legumes like lucerne or clover as a permanent understory to cereal crops to provide nitrogen through the season.

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Farmers, advisors and researchers working together to understand and improve crop nutrition on-farm

Some symbiotic or free-living microorganisms can fix inert di-nitrogen (N) from the air into reactive organic nitrogenous compounds.  Most biological N fixation (BNF) in farming systems occurs in the root nodules of legumes where rhizobium bacteria take photosynthates from the plant in exchange for fixing atmospheric N and returning ammonium or amides which the plant uses to form amino acids, proteins, etc.   Plants need more N than any other nutrient and N most commonly limits plant growth in most ecosystems. 

Nitrogen is required annually by most crops (except pulses) to achieve yield and quality. Judging how much N to apply is a key part of nutrient management.

Regenerative farming looks to optimise the use of the ecological system and environment, in order to benefit from the natural ecosystem services that they provide.

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The intricate web of relationships between physical, chemical and biological soil components underpins crop and livestock health and productivity. Protecting soil health is also critical to environmental sustainability, as soils: • Exchange gases, such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides, with the atmosphere • Regulate the flow of water and rainfall in the water cycle • Provide nutrients for plant growth, by breaking down organic matter and altering chemical fertilisers • Transform and store organic materials, as part of the terrestrial carbon cycle • Degrade contaminants applied through human activities or left by floods and aerial deposition A healthy soil is able to sustain, in the long term, these important functions. In a healthy soil, the interactions between chemistry (pH, nutrients and contaminants), physics (soil structure and water balance) and biology (including earthworms, microbes and plant roots) are optimised for the conditions in that place.   View more from AHDB GREAT Soils. Share resources you find helpful below.

Cover crops are grown primarily to ‘protect or improve’ soils between periods of regular crop production. They can be effective at improving soil functions by increasing soil nutrient and water retention, improving soil structure/quality, reducing the risk of soil erosion, surface run-off and diffuse pollution by providing soil cover and by managing weeds or soil-borne pests.  

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This field lab's objective is to investigate the potential of living mulches, creating a permanent clover understory to suppress weeds, cycle nutrients, protect and enhance soil health, as a means to achieving organic and low-input no-till systems - that can be more sustainable than those systems they seek to replace.

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