The Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) outlines that the Department of Agriculture has started developing legislation to allow the Minister for Agriculture to adopt a register of chemical fertiliser sales. The register will come into place on 1 January 2023 and the NAP states that it will bring a level of regulation to the industry and, in turn, ensure chemical fertilisers are used for optimum efficiency.

The document outlines: “While it is acknowledged that the majority of farmers apply chemical fertilisers in an efficient manner, and in compliance with the requirements of the Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) regulations, the inter-farm movement of fertilisers and stockpiling of fertiliser does not lend itself to an accurate calculation of the chemical fertiliser loadings at farm scale.”

It is envisaged that the register of chemical fertiliser sales will operate similar to the pesticides register introduced in 2012. Responsibility will be placed on wholesalers, merchants and distributors of fertilisers to register sales of chemical fertilisers against individual farmer’s herd number(s).

This data will then be reported to the Department and it will be used to assess compliance with the requirements of GAP regulations, along with contributing to the Department’s analysis of farming activities.

More inspections and improved compliance

The NAP states that the results from approximately 3,400 nitrates-related inspections carried out annually by local authority and Department of Agriculture personnel are below par.

Compliance with the requirements of Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) varies from county to county, but is said to be generally considered low relative to other national legislation.

There is not expected to be significant changes to enforcement powers of authorised personnel within GAP regulations.

However, there are plans to introduce a national local authority inspection programme, controlled by local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Features proposed include carrying out a review of the local authority inspection programme every four years, developing a National Agricultural Inspection Programme (NAIP), which may direct local authorities on where to prioritise inspections, maintenance of appropriate records and submission of such to the EPA and identifying training needs for inspectors.

An increased number of farm inspections are in the pipeline and these will be targeted to areas deemed high risk for water quality.

Furthermore, a key focus of the NAIP will be ensuring follow-up inspections of non-compliant farms are undertaken, along with issuing enforcement notices and bringing cases to prosecution stage, if necessary.

Non-compliant farms will also be cross-reported to the Department of Agriculture, leading to penalties on farm payments.

The Department of Agriculture has also committed to increasing its level of inspections of farmers participating in the nitrates derogation from 5% of all farms to 10% carried out annually.

A risk-based approach and risk categories will be introduced to ensure inspections target the highest risk areas.

Management of sewage/industrial sludge

There are a number of bodies involved in the management and use of sewage/industrial sludge.

The use of sewage sludge is overseen and managed by Irish Water through its National Wastewater Sludge Management Plan.

The NAP states that the application of sludge to agricultural land is controlled by local authorities. This, it says, is achieved through the maintenance of sludge registers and inspection/enforcement programmes.

A review of how sewage/industrial sludge is managed will be carried out under the fifth Nitrates Action Plan.

There is a different layer of oversight with industrial sludge (including dairy processing and animal slaughtering), with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) responsible for regulating industries that generate industrial sludge through licences known as Industrial Emissions Licensing (IED).

The actual application of industrial sludge as an organic fertiliser to agricultural land is controlled under the GAP regulations.

The NAP has identified shortcomings in the process and highlights that there is currently no integrated approach or data system available that identifies the load and spreadlands where sludges are applied.

It highlights that a comprehensive understanding of the movement of sludge and its application to agricultural lands is required to ensure existing controls are fit for purpose.

The National Technical Implementation Group (NTIG), part of the River Basin Management Planning and Water Framework Directive (WFD) governance structures, has been tasked with carrying out a review of the management and oversight of sludge. Recommendations from this review will be submitted to the WFD governance structures for consideration.

LESS equipment and air quality

From an air quality perspective, ammonia provides the most significant challenge from agriculture, with agricultural activities accounting for 99% of national ammonia emissions. There are two main issues highlighted with ammonia in the environment – potential damage to human health causing respiratory issues, and habitat deterioration through its accumulation on soil and vegetation.

Over the next three years, the mandatory use of low emission slurry spreading (LESS) equipment will be required by an increasing number of farmers operating at lower stocking rates.

The Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) regulations (SI 65/2017, as amended) already has rules in place requiring Low Emissions Slurry Spreading (LESS) equipment to be used by all farmers operating above 170kg organic nitrogen per hectare. This includes farmers in derogation and those operating above the 170kg N cut-off, but remaining outside of derogation by availing of options such as exporting organic fertilisers.

The requirement to use LESS equipment is being expanded from 1 January 2023, as follows:

  • From 1 January 2023, compulsory usage of LESS equipment will be introduced for all farmers operating above 150kg livestock N/ha.
  • Pig farmers will also be required to use LESS equipment from this date, while all organic manures applied to arable lands must be applied by LESS equipment and incorporated within 24 hours of application.
  • From 1 January 2024, compulsory usage of LESS equipment will be introduced for all farmers operating above 130kg livestock N/ha.
  • From 1 January 2025, compulsory usage of LESS equipment will be introduced for all farmers operating above 100kg livestock N/ha.
  • Crude protein levels

    From 1 March 2022, the maximum crude protein content in concentrate feeds offered to grazing livestock has been set at 15% for farmers operating at a stocking rate at or above 130kg organic N/ha.

    Rules surrounding maximum crude protein levels permitted in concentrate feeds came into place under the midterm review of the fourth NAP and were applicable to farmers operating above 170kg organic nitrogen per hectare (N/ha).

    This ruling has been extended to lower-intensity farmers operating at a grassland stocking rate of 130kg N/ha and higher (prior to the export of slurry). From 1 March 2022, such holdings must limit the crude protein content of concentrates fed to grazing livestock between 15 April and 30 September to a maximum of 15%.