Most intensive farmers must step up water quality protection

Most intensive farmers must step up water quality protection

Over 7,000 farmers will have to condition their soils with lime, measure grass production, and include clover in new grass swards, from 2020 onwards.

These are among several recommendations by the Nitrates Expert Group which has reviewed the nitrates derogation that allows some farmers to operate with more livestock per acre than stipulated in the EU’s Nitrates Directive. The derogation is used by over 7,000 farmers on 11% of Ireland’s farmland, who manage 20% of the country’s bovine livestock.

Many of the new requirements will also apply to a further 5,000 farmers, who have 13% of the country’s bovine livestock. They exceeded a 170 kg N/ha livestock manure limit, but exported slurry or took other actions to comply with this Nitrates Directive limit.

Ministers for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Housing, Planning and Local Government, Michael Creed and Eoghan Murphy have welcomed the recommendations of the review group and will move to bring these into force this autumn.

The compulsory adoption from 2020 of a farm liming programme is probably the biggest demand on the 12,000 farmers, who are mostly dairy farmers. Application of lime improves the soil fertility, so that the same grass yields can be achieved with less addition of artificial fertiliser.

Another big demand is that 7,000 farmers must, from 2020, record through appropriate software technology the grass produced annually on their farms, which will require certified grassland measurement training for some of the farmers.

However, they will benefit from having this grassland management decision support tool for improving nutrient use efficiency, and grass production and utilisation. There will be efficiency gains also for 7,000 farmers required to include clover in grass seed mixtures when carrying out new grass reseeding. Clover captures nitrogen from the air, facilitating less use of artificial fertiliser, like lime.

All 12,000 farmers will be affected by a 2020 requirement to reduce the protein in concentrate feeds for grazing livestock, in order to reduce excess protein in animals’ diets. And they must use more low emission slurry spreading.

It was already compulsory for 7,000 derogation farmers that at least 50% of their slurry be applied by June 15, and that low emission equipment be used after June 15. They must ensure only low emission equipment is used after April 15, 2020, and after January 12, 2021.

From 2020, commonage or rough grazing will not be eligible for derogation farmers, and cannot be included for the calculation of the chemical fertiliser allowance for the holding. This will reduce the chemical fertiliser allowance on marginal lands and reduce the risk of losses to the environment.

The review group also recommended adoption of a biodiversity measure by derogation farmers, and that they implement the measures in the All Island Pollinator Plan, from 2020.

Ministers Creed and Murphy said derogation farms are a very important cohort for the Irish economy, and the review was conducted to ensure they operate with efficient and effective water quality protection standards, and continue to reduce their environmental footprint.

Minister Murphy said: “Farming at more intensive stocking rates must be complemented with a high level of water quality protection. This is especially important now, in light of recent water quality results which show that significant additional effort is required across a range of sectors if the long-term water quality targets set out in the Water Framework Directive are to be achieved.”

The Nitrates Review Group warned that 65% of the bovine livestock are on farms with stocking rates over 130 kgs/ha, and the next Nitrates Action Programme review should examine opportunities for this cohort to reduce their environmental footprint and contribute to the climate and water challenges. Measures to support improved biodiversity on all farms are also likely.

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