Tillage farmers have to abide by the new measures, if only to put pressure on other industries and sectors of society
The new nitrates regulations will affect how tillage farmers go about our business in the weeks ahead as we harvest the 2022 crop and begin planning go for the 2023 crop.
The regulations are in place primarily to improve water quality. We can argue, with some validity, that agriculture is not the only factor in deteriorating water quality, and tillage production achieves levels of nutrient efficiency that other sectors can only dream of.
However, the facts are that water quality is not improving, and tillage has to step up to the plate and take on board additional measures to protect water quality.
Whataboutery, whingeing and blaming others is not a good approach for an industry that needs to improve its messaging to the non-farming public as it is.
The first new measure is a requirement to stubble-cultivate all tillage land within 14 days of harvesting a crop to stimulate weeds and volunteers.
There are a number of issues that require sorting: what happens in wet harvest years when stubble cultivation would have a seriously negative effect on nitrate losses?
Also in the legislation is the need for some bird species to have over-winter bare stubbles in which to feed and nest. I suppose they are like snipers and prefer a clear line of sight of approaching enemies.
Overall, the stubble measure could be very positive for tillage production. Trapping nitrogen and stimulating biological activity are positive impacts, and it will reduce problem weed bank populations.
Once stubbles are cultivated, non-plough establishment and crops like oilseed rape become easier to contemplate.
The second measure is a requirement to have a 6m buffer established along an intersecting watercourse for late-harvested crops and late-harvested spring cereal crops.
The reasoning is that for fields that slope towards a river for instance, the risk of soil flowing into the river is high if it is disturbed over the winter.
This measure is not without cost. For a 10ha square field that requires a 6m buffer all round it, 0.75ha will be lost from production. In old money, that nearly 2ac lost in 25ac.
Most fields will not need any buffer, and those that do will only have one or perhaps two boundaries with a watercourse in which the overland flow is likely to occur.
All important in this measure is the plough operator: wherever the plough turns soil, the rest will follow. The plough operator is generally not the person responsible for adherence to nitrates regulations.
That will have to change and all field operators will require training to adhere to this and other measures.
Agriculture is under pressure to maintain the ‘social licence’ to farm — the goodwill of the non-farming public to go about our business in the best possible way.
We must take on board these measures to ensure that we keep up our end of the bargain, if only to put pressure on other industries and sectors of society that may not be willing to comply.
Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in North Co Dublin and is a member of the ACA and ITCA