Radish cover crops© Tim Scrivener

Farmers in north-west England will be paid to improve water quality by growing cover crops this winter.

A reverse auction by United Utilities is inviting farmers to place a bid for the price they are willing to be paid to sow the crops.

The offer is open to growers who farm land within the seven “safeguard zones” over important water storage aquifers in and around Cheshire.

See also: How to cut nutrient losses with cover crops

United Utilities hopes it will improve water quality by reducing the nitrates that leach into groundwater surrounding boreholes in the area during the winter months.

A United Utilities spokesman said: “We want to work closely with farmers to help them plant cover crops over the winter to take up nitrates remaining in the soil after the summer harvest.”

The auction, which closes on 30 June, allows the price United Utilities pays to be determined by the farmers who participate based on their price per hectare and the resulting nitrogen saving.

During the auction, farmers will be able to see where their bid sits in comparison to other bids.

Once the auction has closed, successful bidders will be contacted, said the spokesman.

“If this auction proves successful we plan to branch out with more auctions in the future.

Major benefits

The United Utilities spokesman said cover crops brought major benefits – to farmers as well as to the water company.

Cover crops would help prevent nitrates from leaching into the groundwater during winter when it rained and affected water quality in the catchment area.

They also helped reduce fertiliser and agrochemical costs, improving yields by enhancing soil health, preventing soil erosion and conserving soil moisture.

The auction is being run in partnership with EnTrade, an online trading platform that facilitates environmental improvements.

The company works to match up people who are looking to secure an improvement to the environment with those who are best able to deliver it.