The new nitrates regulations affect nearly 50pc of Irish farmers – are you one of them? Do you know what you have to do?
I’m concerned that many dry-stock farmers are not keeping a close enough eye on the changes in the 5th Nitrates Action Plan (NAP) that will apply to them.
here are questions about whether Ireland will be able to hold onto its Nitrates Derogation limit of 250kg N/ha, but there is much more to the NAP than the 250kg limit.
Most farmers think the regulation will only affect intensive dairy farmers. This is not so.
Ireland’s first NAP was in 2006, and was reviewed every 3-4 years: 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2021. During the last round of negotiations the EU Commission insisted on a review after two years, because of concerns it had relating to trends in Irish water quality.
This should have set off alarm bells in the farm organisations. By 2021, Irish dairy cow numbers had increased by 12pc and chemical nitrogen use had increased by over 30,000t/year from 2017 to 2021.
Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark, along with the Flanders region in Belgium, are the last countries in Europe that still have a derogation. It’s unlikely that the Dutch will retain theirs, and the Danes have been reduced to 230kg N/ha max.
220kg N/ha max is being quietly spoken about as to where Ireland may be next year, unless there is a significant and immediate improvement in water quality.
For derogation farms, a reduction from 250 to 220 will be more expensive than the proposed banding rates which come into effect this year.
As spring-calving herds progress through calving and the AI season begins, some thought ought to be put into the ideal number of cows that should be calving this time next year if the 220kg N/ha limit is brought in.
For all non-derogation farms, there are a significant number of changes to be aware of. All of these are intended to improve water quality, but there will be financial implications on affected farms.
Chemical fertiliser usage has already been adjusted this year. For soil tests to be valid they must be less than four years old. Without valid soil test results, all arable farms and livestock farms stocked above 130kg N/ha are assumed to be Index 4 for P, and so no chemical P is allowed to be spread.
Even with valid soil test results, there is a 10pc cut to the chemical N we are allowed to spread. The introduction of a national fertiliser register is imminent.
Splash plates are now banned on all farms stocked at or above 150kg N/ha. For next year, the ban extends to 130kg N/ha farms – then from January 2025, farms stocked at 100kg N/ha.
The use of Low Emission Slurry Spreading equipment is being actively encouraged, but the cost of these machines will be prohibitive for smaller farms.
The increased length of the closed period for spreading will put contractors under more pressure before and after the closed period.
There are other changes to farm practices, such as only stacking silage bales two rows high, banding of dairy herds, buffer strips, fencing off watercourses, and establishing cover-crops. These came into effect in January.
A ban on spreading soiled water in December was inevitable, something that many farmers will be happy to see.
Farming has been losing the environmental debate badly in recent years, and modestly stocked farms are set to face even more regulations in the future.
There is no point blaming the Department of Agriculture or the Green Party for the recent changes. The EU Commission indicated two years ago that they wanted to see immediate improvements in water quality test results or else they would refuse to grant Ireland its derogation.
If these new regulations fail to make an improvement, we are facing yet more restrictions at farm level.
Real farm leadership is required right now to encourage best practice on all farms to prevent further cuts.
Almost half of Irish farmers are affected by the current changes, and every effort should be made to either get to a public meeting, or to contact your farm advisor to keep up to date with the new regulations.
More needs to be done to make farmers aware of what is ahead. Holding onto the derogation for farmers stocked at 250kg N/ha was perceived to be the focus, but even farmers stocked at 100kg N/ha will have to make adjustments.
Angus Woods is a drystock farmer in Co Wicklow
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