What do the new guidelines for the Farming Rules for Water mean for farmers?

Monday, 23 August 2021

Soils and crop nutrient management specialist James Holmes explains what the Environment Agency’s new guidelines for the Farming Rules for Water mean for farmers.

Recently the Environment Agency (EA) released a regulatory position statement (RPS) on the Farming Rules for Water, which outlines when organic material can be spread on farmland.

Farming Rules for Water have been in place for over three years and are wide ranging. However, concerns have recently been raised by farmers about one aspect, specifically that the EA want farmers to avoid applying organic material during autumn, unless the crop has a winter nitrogen requirement such as grass and oilseed rape.

So why the new rules?

The UK government has become increasingly focused on the environment in recent years, introducing a new Environment Bill and with it a new Office of Environment Protection. It’s commitment to the Paris Agreement and host of the upcoming COP26 mean reducing emissions and pollution is high on its agenda.

As part of this, Defra’s Farming Rules for Water aim to reduce nitrate leaching into waterways, as although nitrate pollution in rivers has declined over the past 20 years, the quality of ground water is a concern. Therefore the EA would like farmers to apply organic materials in spring to help reduce nitrate leaching further.

This year AHDB commissioned research to assess the impact of Farming Rules for Water, particularly the practical and logistical implications for farmers, and while RB209 advises application in the spring it does not preclude autumn application. The guidance written by MAFF, prior to AHDB, recognises that manures and slurries are often applied and incorporated ahead of winter cereals.

Interestingly, the research also highlighted the risks of applying materials in spring. As although nitrogen will be taken up by growing crops, adverse weather, which is all too common, in the spring can lead to an increased risk of phosphate pollution if materials are applied and run-off should occur unexpectedly. Application in spring, to winter sown crops, also means that incorporation can’t take place, which will increase ammonia emissions.

What’s important is not to lose sight of the fact that there are wide ranging benefits of using organic materials including, building soil organic matter with consequent improvements in soil structure, drainage and water holding capacity.

Currently, around 13 million tonnes of manures are spread during autumn, so it begs the question, what will farmers do with all the surplus material?

If you think you can’t apply manures and slurries under the RPS and storage is not an option, then contact the EA for support and guidance:

This is a critical issue for farmers, and I am working closely with all stakeholders to ensure farmers can continue to use manures and slurries to improve soil health and make best use of all available nutrients.

Look out for James’ next blog on slurry storage and possibilities for the future.