Fostering populations of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi through cover crop choices and soil management

Project number 21140024

Lead partner University of Cambridge

Scientific partners NIAB

Industry partners PlantWorks

Start date January 2018

End date January 2021

AHDB funding £35,250 

Total funding £70,250 (AgriFood Charities Partnership funding)

The challenge

Cover crops are grown for the purpose of ‘protecting or improving’ soils between periods of regular crop production. Among other benefits, cover crops can promote beneficial microbial communities, including arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) that have been shown to increase plant growth and yield in field conditions.

AMF form interactions with many agricultural crops, but some common farm practices can have detrimental impacts on mycorrhizal populations. There is limited research on how cover crops affect diversity of AMF, especially in the UK. Furthermore, the relative contribution of mycorrhizal species richness and evenness to crop growth is not known. This PhD studentship considers how cover crops can influence diversity and abundance of AMF, how these populations associate with the following cash crop, and their impact on yield.  

The project

The study will utilise field-scale trials, as well as glasshouse experiments, to address the following project aims:

1. To assess the impact of cover crop species on soil health, including the diversity and abundance of AMF.

2. To quantify the effect of increased diversity and abundance of AMF species on crop yield, under a range of soil, inoculation and weather conditions.

3. To consider the impact of common farm practices, such as cultivation, nutrient application and use of herbicides, on AMF diversity and abundance.

The benefits

Appropriate use of cover crops can improve soil health through a number of mechanisms, and may increase the potential yield of following crops. Furthermore, cover crops can provide environmental benefits, by reducing diffuse pollution and nitrogen volatilisation, and increasing habitats for pollinators. Promoting a diverse pool of AMF may provide complimentary benefits to following crops, including increased nutrient uptake, pest and pathogen resistance, and drought tolerance, and may further increase yield potential of following crops. This research will inform growers of the potential economic and environmental benefits of cover crops and AMF in UK agriculture.

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