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Nitrates review

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The nitrates review delivers derogation, supports improved soil fertility, but places an increased requirement on farmers, writes Thomas Ryan, environment executive, Irish Farmers’ Association.

In recent weeks, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, and Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, announced that the EU Commission had formally granted the continuation of Ireland’s nitrates derogation. This is positive, given that two Member States lost their derogation and others are currently struggling through their negotiations. The announcement by both ministers is the final part of a review of the nitrates regulations. It comes after 12 months of intensive lobbying by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), scientific research by agencies including Teagasc and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as technical discussions in Brussels and Dublin involving senior officials from both ministers’ departments.

An important derogation
The derogation is important to support the sustainable development of the sector, with farmers in every county in Ireland availing of it. However, given the stringent additional compliance obligations and the higher risk of inspections, it is not surprising that only 5 per cent of farmers actually farm in derogation each year. New compliance obligations attached to the ministers’ announcement include a requirement that 50 per cent of all slurry produced on a derogation farm must be applied by June 15 each year. After this date, slurry may only be applied using low-emission equipment. Derogation farmers must also have sufficient storage for livestock manure and soiled water produced on their holdings.

Hungry soils
Soils in Ireland are nutrient hungry. Teagasc has highlighted that only 10 per cent of soils have good overall fertility levels. To address this, the nitrates reviews will now allow farms with a stocking rate of greater than 130kg nitrogen (N) per hectare and at Index 1 to spread an extra 30kg phosphorus (P) per hectare per year. Farms at this stocking rate, where fields are at Index 2, will be allowed to spread an extra 20kg P per hectare per year.
These measures are part of a four-year programme, which will also include requirements for farmers who avail of these new build-up rates to complete nutrient management plans and participate in a knowledge transfer programme.

All soils to be sampled
Regardless of stocking rates, all farmers are now required to have a maximum soil sample area of 5 hectares every four years. Farmers with a higher stocking rate of greater than 170kg N per hectare will, from January 1, 2021, be required to put in place fencing 1.5m from the top of watercourse banks, to exclude bovines from watercourses, with water trough setback of at least 20m from watercourses. In addition, from January 1, 2021, all farmers will be required to direct run-off from farm roadways away from water courses.

P application date extended for cereals
On winter cereals, the allowable timing of P application has changed. It is now possible to apply 20kg of P per hectare on Index 1 and 2 soils up to October 31 each year. However, this must be incorporated at, or before, sowing time. The N and P limits for potatoes and vegetables have been brought in line with Teagasc’s nutrient advice.

Farmers must fully inform themselves on implications of directive review
Changes have taken place, the derogation remains, genuine attempts have been made to address poor soil fertility levels. But there are strings attached. It is important for farmers to go to the knowledge transfer events and get nutrient plans done. The true value of the roadways and fencing off livestock remains to be seen, but the costs on farms to comply with these are real and tangible. Teagasc, Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA) members and advisors are available and fully informed on the implications of the changes in the directive. They should be consulted by farmers to go through the finer detail of this review, as individual farms will have significantly different soil fertility levels and the infrastructure necessary to comply with the new restrictions contained in the nitrates derogation review will vary widely from farm to farm. The best advice is that farmers should inform themselves fully as there is too much money being lost each year during on-farm inspections.

Tags: slurry Irish Farmers Association Degrogation soils