Nitrates' changes will boost prospects for winter cereals in low fertility soils

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Pat Minnock

Pat Minnock

With a month already gone in the new year it won't be long until the field work starts again. All machinery should be thoroughly checked and serviced and repairs carried out if required.

Last autumn we experienced broken weather which has left a lot of work to do this spring. If you have experience of particular breakdowns or expect issues with certain machines, having a stock of spare parts will minimise your downtime.

You should now complete your fertiliser and pesticide records for 2017 and prepare some of your paper work for this season.

Contact your agricultural consultant if you require help over the next couple of weeks as he or she won't thank you for looking for these to be completed when the busy times arrive. Your cropping plan should now be decided.

Your decisions should be based on the best returns achieved from crops grown over the last few years.

It looks like prices for grain next autumn will not be any better than the last number of years, so at best financial returns will be minimal.

Have no concern about leaving poor fields or sections of fields fallow for the season as no financial loss will be incurred and this provides an opportunity to apply organic manures and possibly cover crops to those fields or parts of fields to improve them for future cropping.

There are a number of meetings being held around the country for tillage growers at the present time. If possible growers should attend one or more of these meetings and use the opportunity to obtain knowledge to help with decisions.

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As an advisor I find that at this time of the year there are quite a number of useful meetings to attend.

Last week I attended an update on the new Nitrates Action Programme (2018 to 2021).

While farmers might not be very familiar with the contents of this programme your advisor should be at this stage because the programme is operable since January 1, 2018.

A number of changes have been made to the previous action programme.

Jack Nolan of the Department of Agriculture's Nitrates Section made an excellent presentation to agricultural consultants.

He pointed out that there has been an increase in numbers of over 300,000 dairy cows since the abolition of quotas. He noted that the tillage area in the country is down by approximately 10pc and most of this reduction has been swallowed up by dairy enterprises.

This has obviously led to a significant increase in effluent production.

His concern is that the Department isn't see an equivalent increase in investment in effluent storage facilities.

While it is understandable that farmers will be slow to invest in slurry storage facilities at a cost of around €70 per cubic metre of storage, there is no doubt that failure to provide sufficient storage will eventually lead to problems.

It is very easy to estimate the storage capacity required for each farm.

It is also relatively easy for the Department of Agriculture to do the calculations on a national basis.

Failure to invest in effluent facilities will be obvious and it will be likely that more cross compliance issues will arise.

There have been some welcome and sensible changes to the Nitrates programme.

Tillage farmers will now be allowed to apply 20kg of phosphorus (P) per hectare up to October 31 as distinct from the previous closing date of September 15 on soils with P indices of 1 or 2. This will obviously help the establishment of winter cereals in low fertility soils.

If I was to be critical, it is a pity that this is not also allowed for index 3 soils.

Other changes now require soil samples for every 4ha, (5ha in some cases) and organic matter tests will be required for peaty soils.

Changes of less interest to tillage growers but of interest to mixed farmers or cattle enterprises is that bovines will have to be excluded from water courses from January 1, 2021 where stocking rates are greater than 170kgs per hectare.

Water troughs will have to be set back at least 20m from water courses.

Run off from farm roadways will no longer be allowed, and with an average length of 1.4 km of farm roadways per average dairy farm this will entail significant investment.

It is well recognised that soil fertility levels have dropped and while most farmers do not require high fertility if stocked at low levels, grass production efficiency drops dramatically when fertility levels are low.

For those farmers with 130kg plus of nitrogen per hectare, it is essential that fertility levels are maintained.

The new nitrates programme allows for the build up of P in index 1 (30kg P per hectare per year) and index 2 (20kg extra) soils.

Farmers wishing to avail of this allowance will have to participate in Knowledge Transfer programmes.

One regulation which will not change and one which exercises both farmers and advisors alike is the closed period for effluent spreading.

As Mr Nolan rightly pointed out there is no merit in applying organic fertiliser to soils when growth is very limited during the closed period.

It is more beneficial to apply this organic fertiliser when benefit will accrue, namely in the spring or early summer. This is a valuable source of fertiliser and will reduce fertiliser costs if used correctly.

For derogation farms, slurry must now be spread before the middle of June and slurry spread after June will have to be applied by low emission slurry spreading systems.

While some of the changes will not be welcomed by the farming community they do make sense and will, if implemented, save money and help the environment.

Slurry forms

One thing that has got to change is farmers' habit of leaving things to the last minute.

For the last number of years in the weeks leading up to Christmas agricultural consultants can be very busy with farmers requiring movement of slurry forms to be completed.

If you have been requested to complete these movement forms, you should approach the exporting farmer now and offer to take the relevant slurry in the spring when it can be of benefit to your farming enterprise.

With the increase in cow numbers the need to export organic manures is likely to be even greater.

The next few weeks is the time to plan for imports.

Discuss the matter with your advisor before you and he gets busy.

Pat Minnock is a Carlow based agricultural consultant and a member of the ACA and the ITCA.

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