Sixty new county council staff are being deployed to focus solely on farm inspections this year, as part of the Government’s drive to ramp up enforcement of water quality rules.
Some 4,500 annual inspections are planned.
Speaking at Centenary Thurles’s recent water quality conference, Tipperary County Council agricultural scientist, Gillian Delehanty, said that the inspections will be targeted at protecting drinking water sources.
In addition to scheduled council inspections, they may also be prompted by complaints and referrals from fisheries authorities, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, planned and ad hoc cross-reports from the Department of Agriculture.
Inspections will also be carried out in relation to planning applications, use of sewage sludge in agriculture, and use of pig slurry and poultry litter.
Delehanty outlined the most common breaches found by county council inspectors to more than 50 farmers in attendance at the Centenary Thurles event in the Cabragh Wetlands, Holycross, Co Tipperary.
Farmers are required to minimise the amount of soiled water produced on their farms, and Delehanty highlighted the most common breaches found by farm inspectors as being:
Under water quality rules, livestock manure must be collected and stored in a way that prevents runoff or seepage to groundwater or surface water.
Typically, the most common breaches found by inspectors are:
Delehanty added that inspectors regularly find structural issues with dungsteads, manure pits, silage pits and slabs, with resulting leakage and seepage of runoff and slurry.
Cracked or leaking tanks, as well as silage pits and dungsteads with poor surfaces and cracks, are also found on inspection.
“These tanks – some mass concrete, some block-built – have been storing slurry and silage effluent for years; they are very corrosive.”
Failed earth-lined lagoons have also been found by inspectors and, while earthlined lagoons are still permitted on suitable sites under specified conditions, she would strongly urge farmers to use geomembrane-lined lagoons over earth-lined.
Farmyard manure ‘dumped’
On farmyard manure (FYM), the council council agricultural scientist said few farmers have a dedicated farmyard manure pit, opting instead to let dung build up under stock or else store it on a silage pit, which she said is often not suitable.
“We often see it just dumped at the back of the silage pit or shed,” Delehanty said. “But the effluent from that – and sometimes waste silage – is significant, and must be properly channeled and stored.”
While field storage of FYM is permitted from 12 January to 1 November, it cannot be stored within 20m of an open watercourse, or within 50m to 250m of a drinking water abstraction point.
Silage pits and bales
The biggest issues found by county council inspectors, when it comes to pit and baled silage, are storage on “very poor surfaces” and without walls in some cases, allowing effluent to escape.
A complete lack of effluent channels or blocked effluent channels are common breaches of the water quality rules.
In some cases, channels have been diverted directly to a drain or stream.
“Nothing that comes off a silage pit is clean enough to be diverted directly to a drain or watercourse,” Delehanty warned.
Since 1 January 2021, water quality rules dictate that there should be no direct runoff of soiled water from farm roadways to waters.
With herd expansion and increased cow numbers, the risk of this happening increases, and there can be very significant sediment washed into streams, Delehanty told the conference.
This can be managed using silt traps, cambering of roadways, possibly relocating gaps away from watercourses and planting alongside waterways.
Farm inspections are planned based on a risk assessment of how susceptible rivers in each county are.
These are identified in the Pollution Impact Potential (PIP) maps, published on catchments.ie.
In Tipperary, 54 of the 209 waterbodies have declined in water quality, so those 54 rivers are the highest risk.
Inspectors will also use Bing maps to identify farmyards closest to rivers and tributaries, earmarking farms most likely to contribute to nitrates, phosphates and sediment loss to the water.
This could be due to the proximity to the water, slope of the ground, soil type or even what can be seen by satellite photography.
“You’d be surprised what we can see from Bing maps!” remarked Delehanty, showing clear photos of silage effluent leaching into fields beside streams.
“Poor-looking yards” will also be earmarked, as well as farms flagged by the Department of Agriculture in cross-reporting.
Where any water quality issue is found by an inspector, the farmer will receive an inspection report and a first warning letter.
If the issue is not fixed within a given period of time, a second warning will be issued and, possibly, more time allowed for works to be complete.
The next escalation is a cross-report from the county council to the Department of Agriculture, which could result in a penalty on your BISS farm payment.
The next step is a formal notice, and this can be followed by prosecution in the courts.
However, Delehanty insisted that county councils would much prefer to have issues found by inspectors addressed immediately and avoid any need for prosecutions.
“There are lots of things that farmers can do to improve water quality that don’t have to cost millions,” Gillian Delehanty told the Irish Farmers Journal.
“If 100% of farmers went 80% of the way to full compliance, I would love to see that,” she said, adding that simple changes on many yards would make a huge difference.
“The amount of water ingress of clean water from malfunctioning gutters, and gutters with not enough capacity, is huge,” she said.
“With the rain we get these days, huge downpours, some of those old gutters and downpipes just can’t cope, so they need to be upgraded. Keep that clean water off your collecting yard and out of your slatted tank,” she advised.
“Leaky troughs in slatted sheds, too much soiled water and dairy washings going into the slatted tank, you’re using up your slurry tank capacity for no reason,” she said.
The county council official discourages the concreting of large areas and long lengths of cow roadway.
“It just creates a massive flow of water that moves faster and ends up filling your tank,” she said.
On sloping farms, allowing clean surface water to run off fields onto dirty yards is another mistake, needlessly generating excess dirty water that must be managed.
Clean channels and the installation of kerbs to prevent runoff can also help.
Farmers should walk their cow roadways during and after heavy rain to see where runoff is happening.
They should also assess their silage pits when empty for any potential cracks or other problems.