United Utilities pays Cheshire farmers to grow winter crops

The aim is to help farmers plant winter crops to take up nitrates
The aim is to help farmers plant winter crops to take up nitrates

Cheshire farmers are being paid more than £40,000 to grow cover crops or under sow their maize crop with grass this winter to prevent nitrogen leaching into groundwater.

The farmers, who farm land over important water storage aquifers, bid for the United Utilities funds by taking part in a reverse auction run by online platform EnTrade.

This is the latest auction the water firm has run and its most successful to date with an estimated saving of 14.5 tonnes of nitrogen.

The online auction, which ran from 22 June to 17 July 2020, allowed the price paid to be determined by farmers based on their price per hectare and the resulting nitrogen saving.

The aim is to help farmers plant winter crops to take up nitrates, remaining in the soil after the summer harvest, and prevent them from leaching into the groundwater over winter and affecting water quality.

The safeguard zones surround boreholes from which United Utilities extracts water.

Veronika Moore, catchment advisor for United Utilities said: “We’re really pleased with the response to this offer, it will mean a significant nitrogen saving.

“It’s great to be able to work with farmers to help them improve their land quality and save money while at the same time improving raw water quality."

She said cover crops also benefit farmers by cutting fertiliser costs, reducing the need for herbicides and other pesticides, improving yields by enhancing soil health, preventing soil erosion and conserving soil moisture.

Under-sowing maize with grass or other crops reduces soil erosion, improves soil health and provides a useful additional crop.

The technique of establishing a ‘nurse crop’ of grass during the maize establishment period is considered to be a valuable method for providing a post-harvest ‘mop’ to reduce nitrate loss through the soil profile.