Depleting soil nutrients through frequency and timing of hay cutting on floodplain meadows for habitat restoration and nutrient neutrality

Bowskill, Vicky; Bhagwat, Shonil and Gowing, David (2023). Depleting soil nutrients through frequency and timing of hay cutting on floodplain meadows for habitat restoration and nutrient neutrality. Biological Conservation, 283, article no. 110140.



Floodplain meadows support a high level of botanical diversity because the nutrient inputs from flood sediments are balanced by nutrient offtake via an annual hay harvest, leading to nutrient neutrality. This prevents a build-up of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) and depletes excess nutrients, which mitigates eutrophication in catchment areas and prevents reductions of biodiversity through competitive exclusion.

A replicated field trial was undertaken in floodplain meadows in central England, with the aim of comparing the nutrient offtake potential throughout the growing season with a single or a double-cut system, and determining when haymaking should occur to maximise nutrient offtake and nutritional value of the hay. Additionally, farmer perspectives were gathered to investigate the practicality of implementing a second hay cut.

The results revealed that a single summer hay cut may be sufficient to balance nutrient inputs. However, a double-cut, where a second harvest replaces autumn grazing, has the potential to actively lower N and P levels, removing 8.69 g m−2 N and 0.80 g m−2 P. Maximising time between cuts in a double-cut system provides the greatest opportunity for nutrient removal.

Temperature is a key driver of plant growth. The relationship between accumulated thermal time and calendar date in central England has advanced by around two weeks between 1961–1990 and 1991–2020. Delayed hay cutting under agri-environment scheme restrictions may be increasingly detrimental to botanical diversity with advancing seasons, due to lower nutrient removal under a single-cut system, and increased competitive exclusion. Taking a first cut at the mid-summer peak in offtake potential, currently 20–30 June in central England, and a second cut in the autumn offers an opportunity to deplete excess nutrients. Whilst farmers identify practical and financial concerns that may make a second cut prohibitive in some cases, this could be overcome by, e.g., demonstrating the higher-than-expected nutritional value of hay from a second cut.

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