Nitrates rules have become a real point of confusion for tillage farmers. They are often confused with rules under CAP, as many CAP rules relate to water quality.

Water quality measures under ACRES can also add confusion to the rules.

In this article, we look at some of the key things you need to know to comply with rules to protect water quality on your farm.

Buffer zones

Beside a watercourse, a 3m uncultivated margin should be left in all tillage fields. This is a CAP rule. However, another rule is that plant protection products and fertiliser should not be applied within 3m of a watercourse or a dry drain, so this means that farmers may be better off to leave this margin uncultivated or plant it with grass, as weeds cannot be controlled in this strip.

On a square, 10ac field of spring barley, 200m on each side, with a watercourse on two of those sides, this results in a land loss of 1,200m2 or 12% of 1ha, which is one-third of an acre, or on a 3t crop of spring barley it is 1t of grain.

This margin extends to 6m on late-harvested crops such as beet, maize and potatoes.

It should be noted that if the watercourse is between two fields, the buffer zone is needed in the fields on both sides. If there is a hedgerow, the width of the hedgerow can be taken away from the buffer strip on the side the hedgerow is on.

Stubble cultivation

The stubble cultivation rules under nitrates regulations remain in place. The aim of these rules is to create green cover to protect the soil and take up nutrients from the soil.

Stubbles need to be cultivated lightly and to a shallow depth within 10 days of chopping or baling of straw and, in all cases, within 14 days of harvest.

A minimum of 20% and a maximum of 25% of land should be left uncultivated to provide a habitat for endangered birds unless land is needed to meet different scheme requirements.

Uncultivated land

Uncultivated land should be left unsprayed until 1 February unless it is being planted.

Cultivated stubbles can be sprayed or ploughed from 1 December.

If grass weeds are a problem, then the ground can be rolled where this may be suitable to allow weeds to germinate.

An adviser will need to state meadow, rye or soft brome or blackgrass are present in the field.

These rules apply in counties Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Dublin, Kildare, Laois, Offaly, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Carlow, Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford and Cork.

Stubble cultivation is not required in the following cases:

  • On organic farms.
  • Where root crops or late-harvested crops have been harvested (from late September onwards).
  • Where cereals or beans were harvested after 15 September.
  • Where winter cereals or oilseed rape will be sown before 31 October.
  • The 6m buffer beside a late-harvested crop does not need to be cultivated.

    In March, the Department of Agriculture announced a change to overwinter stubble requirements in ACRES. Originally, overwinter stubble in ACRES meant that you cultivate the stubbles. This is the opposite to overwinter stubble in nitrates rules.

    Farmers in ACRES now have two choices:

  • To leave stubbles uncultivated until 1 February.
  • Or to cultivate stubbles within 14 days of harvest and leave in-situ until 1 February. This was the original action under the scheme.
  • Catch crops

    In recent years, agreements between tillage and livestock farmers increased. Both groups were working together to farm sustainably by growing cover or catch crops on tillage farms for livestock to graze and spread manure on.

    Rules to protect soil affect the grazing of catch crops. After much deliberation last year and a serious risk to the store lamb trade, these rules were changed. The current rules are outlined below.

    If you are planting a cover crop that is to be grazed, you must:

  • Leave a 3m buffer around the perimeter of the whole field, beside fences and hedgerows. This buffer should be cultivated, but not planted with a cover crop.
  • If there is a watercourse, then a 4m uncultivated buffer should be left. If a tillage crop was grown in the field, this was likely a 3m uncultivated grass buffer. This buffer should be extended to 4m, but the extra 1m margin does not need to be in grass.
  • The crop needs to be beside an area of grassland or cultivated stubble for a lieback. If you plant 7ac of a cover crop, then the lieback needs to be 3ac in size.
  • The stubble needs to be cultivated to generate a green cover.
  • Farmers growing catch crops under ACRES cannot graze these crops until 1 January.