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Pioneering work values returns from growing Miscanthus on flood plains

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  • 3 min read

Farmers looking for a crop to grow on flood-prone land may soon have an answer, thanks to some new trials being run by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

Some 18 months from the headline-hitting flooding of the Somerset Levels, these cutting edge trials are set to examine how the exciting new energy crop, miscanthus, copes with flooding. This crop has a growing interest from farmers looking for new opportunities for commercial crops to grow on flood plains, while keeping risks to a minimum.

The trials are being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and will be studied over a two-year period.

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.

The crop’s ability to withstand flooding will be tested: “We know miscanthus has the ability to tolerate flooding when it is 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” says Dr Sarah Purdy, plant physiologist, from Aberystwyth University.

“What’s really exciting about these trials is that we’re also going to analyse the health of the soil under the miscanthus compared to other land-uses,” says Sarah.

Soil samples from the commercial sites will be compared to soil from flood-prone grassland and water quality from nearby waterways, to monitor leaching of nutrients and changes in carbon and nitrogen levels.

“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 so the soil underneath miscanthus 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 fertilizer needs to be applied to achieve high yields.”

“The implications for farmers struggling to grow crops on waterlogged land, are vast,” Sarah continues. “If the nutrient recycling system of 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, rehabilitating water-damaged soils and mopping up nutrients on the edges of waterways. This research could well support a case for planting miscanthus on flood-prone land,” says Sarah.

Terravesta, the miscanthus supply chain specialists, are project partners, providing land to be tested on the Somerset levels. The land is operated and managed by managing director of miscanthus Nursery Ltd and Terravesta’s southern region manager, Mike Cooper. Mike supplies Terravesta with miscanthus, for biomass pelleting, and grows some of the crop to provide rhizome to other growers.

He already grows some of the crop on flood-prone land, and is pleased to be helping out with what he feels is an important development in miscanthus research.

“We’ve believed for a long time that miscanthus improves the quality of soil, and we know it thrives on problem land. We’re hoping these trials will be of great benefit to growers, as we think it’s essential to look into the subject. We need to plan for the future, especially on the Somerset levels, where we may have to look at growing alternative crops,” says Mike.