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Project aims for designer crops

10 September 2011

A crop canopy tailor-made for the conditions it is growing in is the aim of a new three-year research project at Cambridge University Farm. It will help generate savings in nitrogen use and could boost marketable yield, say researchers.

As fertiliser prices continue to rise sharply, a new AHDB Potatoes-funded research project has got underway that promises to deliver real savings in applications, without compromising yield.

The novel concept behind the three-year project at Cambridge University Farm (CUF) is that growers will be able to custom design their own crop canopy to maximise nutrient use over the season, so that wastage of applied nitrogen (N) is minimised.

“We know from previous work that growers, relying on RB209 recommendations, tend to err on the side of caution and apply more fertiliser than the crop actually needs,” notes CUF’s Marc Allison.

“At today’s prices there are considerable savings to be made if you can find a way of feeding your crop’s requirement more closely. It could also bring a healthy boost to your marketable yield.”

The project Improved canopy and N management for the GB potato crop addresses four aspects:

  • The factors that limit the capacity of a crop to take up N early in the season
  • Factors which may result in premature canopy senescence
  • The varietal characteristics of N uptake and redistribution that bring about increased N use efficiency
  • Identification of the circumstances where split-N applications may be an appropriate tool to supplement N uptake

CUF’s N management model has already established a clear relationship between factors such as soil conditions and N uptake.

“We want to define this further and refine the model so that we can quantify the relationship. It’ll help growers decide how they modify applications to achieve the optimum canopy.”

The aim is to provide sufficient N to generate an optimum crop canopy – one that develops rapidly and then just persists for the intended growing season.

“We want to develop the model so that it will use information on the variety, specific soil conditions, and any other relevant factors to determine how the canopy should develop over the season and how N applications should be managed to achieve this,” notes Dr Allison.

The project started in March 2008 and will run for three years. The report on previous work, Evaluation of the soil nitrogen supply system – opportunities for further improvements to the nitrogen economy of the GB potato crop, can be downloaded here.

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