New course helps farmers protect the environment

Charlotte Boole

Fertilisers and manures are a vital part of growing crops and productive grassland – but they can also have a serious impact on our water and air quality. A new course is helping farmers to improve their nutrient management to save money and the environment.

With increasing focus on protecting the environment – both through legislation and voluntary schemes – farmers are under immense pressure to make more efficient use of these resources.

However, until recently there were no training schemes to help tractor operators and contractors to meet these demands. “Regulations dictate that all operators applying pesticides must hold a certificate in their safe use,” explains Charlotte Boole, partner at Greenway Training. “There was no equivalent accredited training available for the application of fertilisers and manures.”

Over the past year, Greenway Training has worked with Wessex Water and LANTRA to fill this gap, with the first courses held in early November. “Initially we are focusing on the Poole Harbour and Brinkworth Brook catchment areas, but as a LANTRA accredited course it can be rolled out nationwide,” says Mrs Boole. “We hope that training providers in other regions will take up the baton to benefit farmers and the environment alike.”

According to Nuffield scholar and Herefordshire farmer Chris Padfield, who delivered the first courses, about 60% of nitrates and 25% of phosphates in the waters of England and Wales originate from agricultural activities. “And around 90% of the EU’s ammonia emissions come from agriculture, leading to new air pollution targets being introduced,” he explains. “As farmers we are going to have to worry more about ammonia emissions and pollution.”

Diffuse pollution is the result of small amounts of nutrients leaching into the surface and ground water from multiple sources, so it is difficult to manage, says Mr Padfield. “But if you can make better use of your manures and fertilisers it will improve efficiencies and yields – and reduce nutrient losses, which in turn affects both profits and the environment.”

Land managers are ultimately responsible for anything taking place on their land. However, if they provide a contractor with clear instructions and maps and a pollution incident occurs, the EA may consider action against the contractor.

So what can farmers do? Although there is a whole raft of legislation to study, Mr Padfield prefers to keep it simple with an acronym: APPT. Apply the right Amount, using the right Product, in the right Place and at the right Time.

This means carrying out regular soil analyses and creating a nutrient management plan, to work out how much fertiliser or manure should be applied to meet the crop’s needs. It’s also important to calibrate machinery correctly to ensure it’s delivering the right amount.

When it comes to the right product, farmers should be aware of varying nutrient contents and speed of release. “Urea is slower release than ammonium nitrate,” says Mr Padfield. In addition, poultry manure has much higher levels of available nitrogen than solid cattle muck, for example.

Spreading in the right place means creating a risk map of your farm, identifying water sources and slopes, and using grass buffer strips as well as cover crops to lock up nutrients. It’s important to consider the accuracy of machinery as some methods of application can cause ammonia losses of up to 80%.

Finally, the right time: Don’t spread when the ground is saturated or frozen, on hot or windy days, or during closed periods in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. “Only apply nitrogen fertiliser when the crop is actively growing, otherwise it can leach away, damaging both the crop and the environment.”

By following these simple steps, farmers can make big strides in improving efficiencies and reducing pollution, says Mrs Boole. “It is is a win-win for all involved – everyone benefits from adopting this joined-up approach.”