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Farmers looking for a profitable crop on flood-prone soils could do worse than considering miscanthus, say researchers. The energy crop thrives where other crops... Miscanthus offers profitable crop for flood-prone land

Farmers looking for a profitable crop on flood-prone soils could do worse than considering miscanthus, say researchers.

The energy crop thrives where other crops would be unprofitable or high risk – and it stabilises soil too, suggests a study undertaken by the Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University.

“There is no significant difference in yield and other physiological development,” said Jason Kam, who led the study.

“Observed height and tiller numbers have no differences between winter flooded and non-flooded ground.”

More resilient

Miscanthus is a perennial crop which doesn’t have to be planted annually – helping farmers save time and money in terms of input costs. The risk can be further reduced by growing it on contract for Terravesta.

“This reduces soil disturbance to a minimum,” says Dr Kam. “The structure of the miscanthus rhizome and root helps to stabilise soils, making it more resilient against flood-caused soil erosion.”

East Yorkshire arable farmer Rob Meadley, who supplies miscanthus specialist Terravesta, grows 12ha of the crop on flood-prone land that previously wasn’t delivering a viable return with cereals.

Mr Meadley planted miscanthus in March 2012 in good conditions. A record-breaking wet April followed, meaning the crop was in standing water. Bad weather hit again in June – with the 2014 harvest affected by the legacy of flooding and poor weed control.

“Arable crops would never have survived the conditions that the miscanthus was exposed to, and we didn’t lose any money on inputs. The annual yield quickly recovered, and in 2017 and 2020, we had bumper harvests of over 13t/ha.”.

Blackgrass control

The crop has also helped to naturally control blackgrass in that area, says Mr Meadley, who says there was no other option for a crop on the same land that would be as profitable.

“It wasn’t performing as well as other parts of the farm and Miscanthus was 100% the right decision for it. The only other option would have been environmental grass, but miscanthus beats this hands down from a net margin point of view.”

Terravesta chairman William Cracroft-Eley planted miscanthus on flood-prone fields in 2015, having previously grown the crop elsewhere on the farm. It missed the first harvest due to flooding but yielded a bumper crop the year after.

How it adds up

“It was a win-win situation because no damage was done to the land, no money was spent on contractors, it wasn’t a loss, because we harvested the crop the following year with the new growth and we hadn’t spent any money on fertiliser.”

Like any crop, miscanthus does better on more favourable land. But it also thrives where other crops fail.

“This could be for numerous reasons, and in this case it’s an ideal solution to water logged land which would otherwise be unprofitable.”

Miscanthus is now more affordable and profitable, thanks to new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) payments. Because it is classified as a non-horticultural permanent crop, up to £2645 per year can be claimed on 10ha of miscanthus.

The payment means the return-on-investment break-even point is two years earlier and the average net return for a 10-hectare crop is £930/ha – a return linked to the retail price index for consistent returns.