Cover crop scheme target doubled after first year success

A cover crop scheme to reduce nitrates in water has been extended to draw in more farms across parts of the south and east of England.

A pilot for the collaborative project between Affinity Water, Cambridge Water and farmers in parts of Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire proved successful in 2019.

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By footing the bill for growing cover crops, the water companies’ scheme prevented an estimated 20t of nitrate leaching into ground and watercourses. Farmers who took part in last year’s project were paid an average of £100/ha.

The initial success has prompted the companies to double the target to prevent 40t of nitrate leaching in the 2020-21 growing season.

The scheme is based around a reverse auction via the EnTrade platform, where farmers submit bids for what they are willing to be paid to grow the crop.

Bids that include species that are more effective at reducing nitrate leaching and have earlier establishment dates will capture more nitrate and are likely to be more competitive.

The bidding system includes a visual tool that will indicates to farmers where their bid sits in comparison with others.

By placing a bid on EnTrad, farmers will receive immediate feedback on the nitrate saving of their cropping choices and their standing in the auction.

A spokesman for the water companies said this allows farmers to determine the price per hectare and the resulting nitrogen saving.

Shaun Dowman, agricultural adviser at Affinity Water, explained why the companies were prepared to pay costs.

“We know that in several Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire groundwater catchments we are seeing increasing nitrate concentrations. Cover crops can help mitigate this, as well as providing other benefits to the soil and the environment,” he said.

But the seed and establishment costs could put farmers off cover crops, so this scheme allows all parties to benefit by sharing the financial burden, he said.

Cambridge Water’s catchment adviser, Jennifer Thomas, added: “Whether farmers are new to the scheme or have taken part previously, there is full support available to them to help them make the right cover cropping choices for their farms.

“If a bid becomes uncompetitive, the farmer will receive an email. It is a very fair bidding system, as it allows farmers to adjust and edit their bid at any time before the auction closes.”

Cropping advice and support throughout the bidding process will be offered by FWAG East.

Crops that can be bid for include:

  • Oil radish
  • Turnip rape
  • Barley
  • Oats
  • Mustard
  • Forage rye and Westerwolds

The farmer can include other species of their choice up to a maximum of 25% of the eventual cover.

How to get involved

The cover crop auction opened on 3 June and closes on 17 June.

Farmers in the areas covered by Affinity Water and Cambridge Water can register their interest and bid online.

FWAG East can be contacted on covercrops@fwageast.org.uk

EnTrade platform support is available on info@entrade.co.uk