Living mulches: The holy grail of no till?

Through Innovative Farmers, a group of organic and conventional farmers have teamed up with the Organic Research Centre and AHDB to investigate how to grow living mulches.

This Innovative Farmers field lab is investigating the potential for establishing no-till organic/low input arable farming systems using a permanent living mulch understory. The aim is to better understand its potential to reduce tillage in organic systems and chemical inputs in conventional ones. The system will rely on maximising the competitiveness of the crop while minimising the competitiveness of the mulch, but there
is a trade-off since the main service provision from the mulch is weed suppression and nitrogen (N) accumulation; the mulch does require a degree of vigour and biomass.

ORC’s Dominic Amos is the researcher involved and the field lab is sponsored by Organic Arable with support from Cotswold Seeds and AHDB. Five of the trials are taking place on organic farms and two on conventional no-till farms.

The living mulch consists of a mix of wild white and small to medium leaved clovers in a 70:30 ratio, selected for their niche complementarity with the main crop, undersown into a cereal in spring 2020. The mulch is then knocked back through grazing or topping with a cash crop direct- or strip-drilled in autumn. This will be compared to standard farm practice.

A barrier discussed at the first meeting was the lack of machinery suitable for mowing the mulch in crop. Clover and other forage legumes only release N when their biomass is returned to soil and may provide too much competition during cash crop establishment, therefore inter-row cutting might be a necessary part of the system.

BBC R4 Farming Today

The Field Lab featured on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme on 12th June 2020. Listen from 5 min 39. Features organic farmer Mark Lea, ORC researcher Dominic Amos and conventional farmer Clive Bailye. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000jxwl (available for 26 days)

Recent field lab meeting discussions on the living mulch trials

More on the field lab No-till with living mulches

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