The drive to develop renewable energy sources is dramatically affecting the UK countryside with wind and solar farms being the most obvious signs.
Less obviously, the UK is also witnessing the largest change to its crop rotational practices since the growth of oilseed rape as the rapid expansion of anaerobic digestion (AD) plants across the country drives the area of land put down to crops such as maize, hybrid rye and energy beet.
With the number of UK AD plants doubling in 2014, the NFU estimates there could be as many as 1,000 agricultural AD plants in the UK by 2020, while the Government estimates around 10% of the UK’s energy will need to come from bioenergy in order to meet the UK’s 2050 emissions target, according to Charlotte Morton, chief executive of the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA).
The development and expansion of the AD sector and its guaranteed long-term income could prove a lifeline for many farm businesses. Ms Morton says: “AD enables farmers to diversify their revenue streams with Government incentives to produce green energy currently guaranteed for 20 years and linked to inflation. In addition a balanced mix of energy crops can enhance soil quality and fertility and hence increase crop yields while using the digestate produced reduces the fertiliser bill.”
While the first AD plants in the UK were fed primarily by maize and food waste, the market has rapidly started to adopt the sophisticated cropping practices developed in the northern Europe renewable energy sector. Elsoms Seeds energy crop specialist, Heather Ayre, says: “The performance of an AD plant and the contribution of energy crops to the profitability of the total farm enterprise can be significantly improved by including hybrid rye and energy beet in the Energy Crop programme.”
Ms Ayre says the demand for hybrid rye has grown significantly over the last two years. “Farmers have rapidly realised hybrid rye is a highly efficient crop which is much friendlier and predictable alternative to maize to include in the rotation.
“Easily established in late autumn, hybrid rye is a robust and vigorous species which grows away rapidly suppressing weeds, as well as improving soil structure through its deep and extensive root system. Harvest is usually in June, allowing plenty of time to prepare land for the following crop, while the long growing period and early summer harvest avoid the variability in yield and quality inherent in maize’s short growing period and early autumn harvest.
“Although maize can only be successfully grown in certain parts of the UK, hybrid rye enables more farmers to benefit from the renewables sector by being suitable to be grown in most parts of the country.” Elsoms Seeds works closely with the Bio Energy Division of German Plant breeder Saaten Union, led by Dr Joachim Moeser, to select new varieties suitable for the UK.
Ms Ayre explains: “The Turbo Technology used by Saaten Union gives their varieties a real point of difference by reducing ergot contamination without compromising yield. SU Drive has done an excellent job in establishing hybrid rye in the UK and we are delighted to be able to introduce two new varieties this year, SU Cossani and SU Performer, both offer significant steps forward in performance.
Elsoms Seeds is the sole UK marketing agent for plant breeder, Saaten Union, based in Germany. The company has recently launched its energy crop portfolio, which includes a range of hybrid ryes, as well as energy beets, triticale and maize.
SU Drive: A UK-proven, stiff-strawed variety, suitable for a range of soil types. Good disease resistance. pSU Cossani: Will be available for the first time this autumn. High yielding, with strong tiller density and excellent disease resistance.
SU Performer: Will be available for the first time this autumn. Very high-yielding in UK and European trials, good lodging resistance and a robust disease profile.
Energy beet: Elsoms Seeds also markets energy beet varieties developed by Strube, a family business with its headquarters in Germany. Like maize, energy beet is spring-sown, but it is generally easier to establish and more robust. Varieties include Barents, a high dry matter crop with a conical root shape to allow easy harvesting, along with low dirt tare to prevent AD plant contamination. It is tried and tested in the UK. The new variety, Artus, will be available next spring and is also high yielding, with conical root shape. It is Strube’s leading biogas variety in Germany.
Wrap estimates that the nutrient value of bio fertiliser is worth up to £120 per hectare.