Updated nitrates regulations were published last March as SI 113 of 2022, implementing Ireland’s fifth Nitrates Action Programme (NAP). This introduced additional measures across all of agriculture to reduce its impact on the environment.

Tillage also contributes to nutrient loss and to help minimise these losses the regulation published earlier this year stated: “Shallow cultivation or sowing of a crop must take place within seven days of the baling of straw post harvest. Where straw is chopped, shallow cultivation or sowing a crop must take place within seven days of harvest. In all circumstances, shallow cultivation or sowing of a crop must take place within 14 days of harvesting.”

The objective of the measure is to enable earlier and increased germination of volunteers and weed seeds so they can capture more nutrients from the soil to prevent loss to water. The more vegetation that is present and the bigger the bulk it produces, the greater will be the capture of soil nutrients and the lower the risk of significant loss.

This led to significant disquiet in the tillage sector, not because of the principles involved but because of the time scale imposed at what is an extremely busy and stressful time of year. While it requires added expense to do this, in terms of machines, time and fuel, many farmers are already aware of the many other advantages that shallow soil cultivation brings in terms of grass weed and pest control.

Stubble cultivation is used to encourage new seeds to germinate.

In some ways this was a relativity simple regulation but certain scenarios such as land going quickly back to winter crops and the need to leave stubbles intact for some specific bird species needed further consideration. A review was always planned to accommodate specific situations with follow-up amendments and this has now been published.

Most of these amendments allow for better practical implementation and they also mean less work for many growers at this very busy time of year.

These regulations are the responsibility of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in consultation with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and are to run until the end of 2025 with an interim review in 2023.

Main changes

The obligation to shallow cultivate or sow a crop in all cereal stubbles remains but it is modified. The seven-day window to get cultivation done has been extended to a 10-day period but baling, straw removal and cultivation/sowing of a crop must still be completed within 14 days of harvesting unless it is covered by a derogation.

In certain conditions (wet or possibly too dry), the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in discussion with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, may advise when this should not apply.

Shallow cultivation is taken to mean any soil disturbance increasing soil–seed contact that will promote seed germination.

All land that is destined to be planted to winter crops before 31 October is now exempt from this requirement to shallow cultivate.

Some counties are now excluded from this obligation due to their low concentration of cereal crops. Shallow cultivation or sowing a crop post-harvest is now only required in 14 counties: Carlow, Cork, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow.

Where shallow cultivation is required, a minimum of 20% and a maximum of 25% of cereal stubble on each holding shall not be subject to shallow cultivation post-harvest to preserve food sources for farmland birds. This calculation is based on the crop area on one’s BPS or new BISS application. Such land left uncultivated cannot be sprayed with herbicides until after 1 February the following year but it can be ploughed after 1 December.

In all cases a farmer can increase crop area sown over winter which could result in less than 20% of stubbles left uncultivated.

One amendment allows shallow cultivation to be replaced by rolling to aid the control of specific problematical grass-weed species (bromes and blackgrass) in limited circumstances, providing it is recommended by a certified adviser.

The amendments exempt the need for shallow cultivation where:

  • The farmer is certified organic.
  • Root crops or late-harvested crops have been harvested (crops typically not harvested before late September).
  • A cereal crop or beans is harvested after 15 September or where a cereal crop has been undersown with another crop.
  • A winter cereal crop, oilseed rape or beans are due to be sown on the land by 31 October.
  • The land is destined for use by the National Ploughing Association later that year or in the first two months of the following year and the farmer has evidence to support this.
  • Other clarifications

    Late-harvested crops include vegetable crops harvested after 15 September as well as fodder beet, sugar beet, maincrop potatoes and maize, excluding cereal crops and beans.

    With late-harvested crops, a minimum uncultivated buffer of 6m shall be put in place to protect against overland water flow to watercourses.

    Any cereal area over which surface water is likely to flow into a watercourse should be given priority as an area that is not to be shallow cultivated post-harvest.

    Where green cover is provided for compliance, this shall not be removed by ploughing or non-selective herbicides before 1 December unless a crop is to be sown within two weeks.

    Where natural regeneration (no cultivation) is used, this land cannot be sprayed with herbicide until after 1 February but it can be ploughed/cultivated earlier.

    Cultivation should not take place within 2m of a watercourse, except for grassland establishment.

    Chemical fertiliser shall not be applied to land within 2m of any surface waters.

    Research on shallow cultivation and bird species is to take place later this year and this may further alter these exemptions.

    No cultivation

    Obligatory cultivation is not required:

    i. Where root crops or late-harvested crops have been harvested.

    ii. Where a cereal crop or beans have been harvested after 15 September.

    iii. Where a cereal crop has been undersown.

    iv. Where a winter cereal crop, oilseed rape or beans are to be sown on the land by 31 October.

    v. Where the land is destined for use by the National Ploughing Association later that year or in the first two months of the following year (documentary evidence is needed).

    What you need to do

    The regulations mean that all farmers are obliged to do something to help reduce loss of nitrate to water. What any individual has to do depends on the cropping system, the crops grown, the schemes he/she is participating in and all autumn planting decisions.

    The starting point is that all growers need to cultivate between 75% and 80% of their cereal, bean and rape stubbles and leave the balance (between 20% and 25%) uncultivated as cereal stubble for overwintering birds.

    The area due to be cultivated can be sown to a crop as an alternative management option. For this reason land to be sown to winter crops before 31 October does not have to be cultivated as a separate exercise to planting/establishment, but it would still be good practice if it can be done.

    Land cultivated as part of the Straw Incorporation Measure counts as cultivated area, as does the area sown to catch crops, either in or outside of GLAS. In all instances the objective is to have vegetation growing on land over winter to take up nutrients that might otherwise be leached.

    Within the measure, any sown crop contributes to the area that must be cultivated.

    It is important to note that the spread of percentages is given to provide flexibility to growers to execute the cultivated and non-cultivated areas. It can also be noted that it is not essential to have cereal stubble not cultivated over winter where all of the crop area was planted in autumn.

    Farm examples

    Example 1: A farmer complied with new nitrates regulations up to 29 July and has land cultivated. If the area cultivated turns out to be 85-90% of total cereal area, this farmer will not be subject to penalty because this complied with the rules at the time, regardless of whether cultivation was for straw Incorporation (SIM) or GLAS or the nitrates regulations.

    Example 2: This farm has 130ha of cereals and 20ha of oilseed rape (150ha total crops). Between 20-25% of the 150ha, ie 30 to 37.55ha, are to be left uncultivated. Land which will be sown to winter cereals before 31 October need not be cultivated as a crop will be sown. Oilseed rape stubble should cultivated/consolidated or planted by 31 October.

    Example 3: This farm has a crop area of 50ha – all cereals. Thirty hectares are to be sown to winter cereals to be planted before 31 October and 20ha to spring cereals. The farmer intends to sow 20ha of catch crops (grown in or out of a scheme) on the spring cereal ground. In this case no specific stubble cultivation is required.

    Example 4: This farm has a crop area of 180ha – 100ha of winter cereals, 40ha of spring cereals and 40ha of beans. Winter cereals are to be planted into the bean area, plus 60ha more, before 31 October. Next year’s beans will be sown into the spring cereal area. With 180ha of crops, 36-45ha need to be left uncultivated unless additional crops are sown before 31 October. Assuming no further crops are sown, this farmer would need to shallow cultivate between 35 and 44ha.

    Example 5: This farm has a total crop area of 100ha – 40ha of winter cereals, 30ha of winter oilseed rape and 20ha of spring cereals. The 30ha of oilseed rape and 20ha of spring cereals are in the SIM, so they are to be cultivated for that measure. Between 20 and 25ha of cereal stubbleneeds to be left uncultivated unless the farmer opts to increase the area planted (cash or cover crop) in the autumn.