Danish crops held back by fertiliser restrictions

Standing in a tidy, well-stocked chemical store on a Danish farm, it came as a surprise that the grower paying for its contents believed pesticide taxes are a positive thing.

After a change in pesticide tax legislation from 1 July 2013, Danish growers are now paying up to 200% more for some active ingredients than before the new rates were introduced.

With some compounds, that now equates to a 1,000% tax rate over the base cost of the product.

With the announcement of the price increases came a rush to buy key products such as Stomp (pendimethalin) before the new taxes came into force, and that is exactly what Lars Hanson did.

Danish arable farming
• Covers 54.3% of total land area
• 86.6% of farmed area in crop production
• World leader in grass and clover seed production
• Efficient malting barley producer

Average yields
• Winter wheat 7.54t/ha
• Spring barley 5.54t/ha
• Winter oilseed rape 3.72t/ha
• Sugar beet 60-70t/ha (12t/ha sugar)

 

Farming 470ha near Store Heddinge, an hour south of Copenhagen in the eastern Zealand region of Denmark, Mr Larson’s farm is currently an integrated crop management (ICM) demonstration farm.

And it is the integrated route that Mr Hanson believes agriculture must tread to achieve a sustainable future, both economically and environmentally.

He told Farmers Weekly on the recent Syngenta Farm Sprayer Operator of the Year winners’ trip to Denmark that he is using fewer chemicals as a result of the pesticide tax.

He now needs to justify their use more than ever and ensure that when they are applied, they are working effectively. He must also maximise cultural controls through the rotation.

“Water is cheap, so making sure the chemical is applied correctly with the correct water rates is important. If we have to spray again, it can get very expensive,” he added.

Truly independent advice

The Danish agricultural industry is advised by the Danish Agricultural Advisory Service (DAAS), a network of a 31 local advisory centres offering all sectors advice on practical and business matters.

Dating back to 1875, the advisory system is unique, as the farmers’ union itself owns it, with growers having the opportunity to opt out of the union if they wish.

Crop advisers and consultants are paid for their time on an hourly basis and are generally provided with about 1,000 hours of time a season.

“Very few will opt out of the union, but whether you are in or out, the consultancy fees are the same price,” explained Mr Holmgren.

The central Knowledge Centre for Agriculture provides research and development and support for the 31 local advisory centres.

The local centres also run their own trials research, with Mr Holmgren’s organisation employing a full-time trialist.

“All the information from the regional and national trials is then available and presented to everyone at the end of the season.

“All the research is completely independent and free from influence of manufacturers, which, along with the knowledge sharing, can only benefit our customers,” said Mr Holmgren.

 

Introduced to Denmark in 1986, taxes were the same on all products except insecticides, which had a minimum tax of 30% added to the retail price.

Soren Holmgren, crop adviser with independent agronomy company Ostdansk Landbrugsradgivning, has seen taxes steadily rise since then and although he agrees there is the positive of improving practices, he also sees trouble ahead.

“In the beginning the taxes were reasonable and we could live with them, but it is getting increasingly difficult and growers in Denmark are in trouble now,” says Mr Holmgren.

Norway – under a similar pesticide tax system – has seen sulfonylurea herbicides become much cheaper in relation to other herbicides, resulting in increased use of one mode of action.

With the associated increase in herbicide resistance pressure, Norwegian growers now have rising populations of herbicide-resistant grass and broad-leaved weeds and Mr Holmgren fears the same could happen in Denmark.

“Maximum dose rates are also coming down each time we have a review, so as crop advisers we are fighting a real push-pull battle with the regulations,” he added.

Effective herbicides pendimethalin and prosulfocarb were mainstays of the Danish herbicide programme, but both are now subject to some of the highest rates of tax.

They have also been subjected to dose rate cuts, with pendimethalin reduced to 1.25 litres/ha, compared with the 2.9 litres/ha we can use here in the UK.

Prosulfocarb has suffered a similar reduction, with 2 litres/ha now the maximum dose. In the UK it is 5 litres/ha.

“They are now so expensive, many wouldn’t afford the maximum dose anyway and weeds are getting harder to control, with sugar beet an example of a crop that is very hard to keep clean,” explained Mr Holmgren.

The UK has escaped a pesticide tax system for now, implementing measures such as the Voluntary Initiative to promote the responsible use of the pesticide products available.

It has also been more straightforward to bring new products to market in the UK, with the recent approval of the new-generation SDHI fungicides.

This is something Mr Holmgren views with envy, as he points out the most effective group of fungicides will never make it to market in his home nation, due to the time it takes SDHIs to decompose in the environment.

“Environmental pressure is very strong here in Denmark and the public have no tolerance of seeing the consequences of agriculture on their doorstep, particularly in water supplies,” he said.

Disease worries

With no chance of further SDHI fungicide approval and similar resistance pressures on the triazole and strobilurin products, disease control in the future is a concern – in a country with an arable area that is in excess of 50% cereals – particularly if triazoles are lost.

The harsh Danish winter suppresses disease levels much more than in the UK, so pressure is much lower heading into the key spring period and a T0 spray is never required.

However, septoria, rusts, eyespot and fusarium can still decimate yields when they arrive later in the season.

“Without triazoles, we would be relying on strobilurin products and, as you know, in the UK they are no longer effective against septoria, so we would be in big trouble,” said Mr Holmgren.

Mr Holmgren believes that technology such as variable-rate pesticides may be a solution, allowing more careful application to allay Danish fears over the environmental effect of pesticides.

“If we could combine our experience of low-input agriculture with the more relaxed regulatory system of the UK, both agriculture and the environment could benefit,” concluded Mr Holmgren.

Fighting fertiliser restrictions

Crop yields are being held back in Denmark due to tight regulation on the amount of nitrogen that can be applied.

Grower Lars Hanson explained that the amount of nitrogen applied is about 15-20% down on the estimated optimum crops require through the season.

Under the current system, each farm has a maximum amount of nitrogen it can use, with the ability to take nitrogen from one crop and apply to another that is more deficient or has more potential.

Use of any nitrogen in excess of the assigned total amount can result in heavy fines. The distributor also takes any excess nitrogen away at the end of the season.

“I would like to see the system that is much fairer for the grower, so if I manage to save nitrogen one year, I can use a little more to push my crops in the following season,” said Mr Larson.

Crop adviser Soren Holmgren pointed out that he and his colleagues spend endless hours calculating nitrogen limits and processing the paperwork, which can be inspected at any time.

Typically winter wheat receives between 160-170kg/ha and oilseed rape 180-190kg/ha, but it could be less where manure is applied in the season.

“Everything is reported to the authorities, so it is impossible to cheat the system, even if you wanted to,” says Mr Holmgren.

Distributors of fertiliser are also subject to heavy regulation, with a license required to buy and sell, and all quantities imported have to be strictly recorded.

Any unaccounted quantities of imported fertiliser run the risk of huge fines, with previous attempts of bringing in extra fertiliser over the border from neighbouring countries reported.

Mr Holgren said it is starving crops, leaving them open and uncompetitive against weeds, but they have to manage with much less herbicide.

“I think it has gone too far. We struggle to make milling grade in wheat, but conversely politicians are helping us to be good malt barley growers, as we can keep grain nitrogen levels down,” said Mr Holgren. 

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