Dairy farmers could face the need for considerable investment to comply with potentially rigorous changes to the Nitrates Action Plan in England.

This, on top of recent falls in milk prices, means many farmers will have to look at whether capital outlay can be justified.

NFU nitrates expert, Mike Payne, says six core changes are intended to bring the UK into line with EC requirements.

“Three stipulations will have drastic effects on dairy farmers, including maximum manure application, closed periods and manure storage.

“The maximum manure application on grassland will drop from 250kg/ha to 170kg/ha.

It is questionable whether there will be any derogation during the changeover period, though this is something we would expect DEFRA to argue with the European Commission for,” he says.

“The existing two-month closed period for spreading will be increased to between three-and-a-half and five months depending on soil type and rainfall.

The area affected by the extension of closed periods to all soil types will take in about four times the area currently covered by the requirements and the extension of the period itself will require further storage facilities,” he adds.

“We are also expecting rigorous restrictions on areas where slurry and manures can be spread, such as on steeply sloping fields,” Mr Payne says.

The European Commission is encouraging the UK to limit chemical fertiliser use by assuming high nitrogen recovery rate (50-60%) from manure, similar to the line taken by the Dutch.

The shortfall which may arise from spreading manure in times when uptake is not at this level could see arable farmers unwilling to accept manure in systems.

Mr Payne argues nitrate trends in the midlands have been falling for the past 15 years and so already satisfy requirements set out by the Commission.

“We can demonstrate falling trends in nitrate levels and further changes would, to an extent, gold-plate requirements of the directive.”

“We are in discussion with DEFRA about the proposed changes and the timing of the formal consultation.

Regardless of the measures, the cost of implementing these changes will make or break many farmers,” cautions Mr Payne.

Farmers in Northern Ireland, in the latter stages of completing its own action plan, have been promised 45m in grant assistance, however, this has been 100m insufficient in relation to the number of applicants.

“The cost is often disproportionate to the benefits, meaning many farmers would not be able to offset investment against development.”

But increased efficiency in slurry application is a positive to be taken out of proposals, highlights Eileen Smith, an Ulster Farmers Union adviser.

“The industry is holding demonstrations showcasing different application techniques, such as the trailing shoe method and soil injection, not only reducing cost, but increasing grass yield, too.”

Tom Hind, chief dairy adviser for the NFU, warns farmers the UK is among several EU member states that will be facing court action if NVZ legislation isn’t brought into line with European Commission demands.

emily.padfield@rbi.co.uk