Innovations in biomass, biodiversity, carbon capture and soil health at the Headley Hall NIAB demonstration day 

21 May 2024

Visitors received a warm welcome to the Nigel Bertram visitor centre of Leeds University Farm with coffee, cake, and the opportunity to select from a wide range of technical materials and chat with other guests and speakers.

Mark Needham

Mark Needham

Mark Needham, from Biomass Connect, welcomed everyone to the meeting, introduced the speakers and asked the group to identify which part of the supply chain they were involved with. Mark outlined the aims of the Biomass Connect project and hoped that this event would be the start of a local network for those interested in biomass production. Mark spoke about the opportunities, benefits and products relating to this emerging industry, and said that while it would be useful to discuss all of these, today’s event would focus on the biodiversity, carbon capture and sequestration aspects. [See Mark’s Presentation Slides]

Stewart Ritchie, the Biomass Connect site manager at NIAB shared some of the challenging aspects of this year’s weather and provided everyone with a plan of the plots in readiness for the tour.

Dr. Judith Ford from Leeds University presented on the ClieNFarms project, which focuses on developing and scaling up systemic, locally relevant solutions to promote climate-neutral and climate-resilient farms. She outlined some of the more interesting projects including the rearing of black flies as a potential protein source for university pig unit. [See Judith’s Presentation Slides]

The event continued with presentations by experts in the field. Dr. Lydia Smith from the Centre for High Carbon Capture Cropping (CHCx3) project at NIAB elaborated on cropping options for carbon capture and storage. Dr. Rebecca Rowe from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) explained the logic behind the SFI Biodiversity Scheme, highlighting the benefits both environmental and financial. [See Rebecca’s Presentation Slides]

A short trip by minibus took the group to the biomass demonstration plots on the farm.

Patrick Stevenson the NIAB Agronomist started the tour with the practicalities of establishing biomass crops and the SFI headland mixtures.  He spoke about matching the headland sizes to machinery widths, and that seed bed requirements were tricky due to the range of seed sizes in the mixtures. He also warned that many of these don’t require added fertility so beware of using prilled fertilizer that may favour some the more vigorous species and restrict the growth of the others. As the weather has been so wet these headlands had only just been drilled so Rebecca from UKCEH had grown 2 trays of the mixes which allowed the group to see the type of plants to be expected

Dr. Rebecca Rowe discussed methods for measuring biodiversity, while Dr. Lydia Smith and Jasmine Toole explained how carbon is sequestered.

Continuing around the site, Stewart Ritchie, Will Macalpine and Chris Ashman led the tour discussions about technical breeding, agronomy, and practical aspects of managing a range of crops. The group saw the new Sida crop planted this year, an adaptable perennial crop used for energy, fibre, and livestock fodder. Chris Ashman took some time to explain the use of a biodegradable mulch film that has been used to help establish the newly planted Miscanthus plug plants on trial this year.

Both Chris and Will emphasised the importance of careful husbandry, that is site preparation, weed and pest control of the plants in the first few years of establishment to ensure good long term performance.

It was also great for our visitors to engage in the below ground aspects of the plots, so thank you to Lydia and Rebecca for the soil health sessions. They both encouraged the group to undertake their own Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure (VESS) and earthworm counts to help manage the soil health. Here’s a link to the CHCx3 VESS guide and the common earth worm  identification sheet 

There were some interesting discussions taking place during the afternoon on a wide range of topics, from where to access regular crop progress updates to the economics and end uses for the crops. It was pleasing to see some new faces representing the wider and local supply chains.

The Leeds University visitor centre was certainly a great place to meet with everything that was needed on hand with friendly, helpful staff, although not the easiest place to find with my hire car Sat nav! Having a joined-up approach with projects for such events seems to be a sensible way forward and we look forward to seeing how we can work together in the future.

This event provided valuable insights into the advancements and practical applications of biomass crops, carbon capture, and sustainable farming practices.

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