Harvest won’t be long coming around and, once it does, tillage farmers will be under pressure with new nitrates regulations on top of the usual peak workload of the harvest.

New regulations under the country’s Nitrates Action Programme outline new green cover requirements on tillage land. While there are some clarifications yet to be made, the main details are there.

The regulations are of course put in place to protect and improve water quality.

Having a growing crop or regenerating cereal volunteers and what would be weeds in a cash crop, results in those plants taking up nutrients from the soil, which may otherwise be lost due to rainfall or wet conditions.

The new green cover requirements state:

  • Shallow cultivation of harvested crops must be undertaken within seven days of baling of straw.
  • 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.
  • Where land is ploughed between 1 July and 30 November, the necessary measures shall be taken within 14 days of ploughing to provide for emergence of green cover.
  • There is another requirement that will affect late-harvested crops such as potatoes, maize and spring cereals. Critical source areas will have to be identified and an appropriate 6m buffer put in place where needed to protect water bodies.
  • Time pressure

    These regulations are now in effect, and now that they are, the workload ahead for tillage farmers is being realised.

    Harvest is arguably the busiest time of the year on a tillage farm. Crops which have been cared for all season need to be cut at the optimum time and in the weather windows provided.

    Early mornings and late nights are part and parcel of the time of year and these regulations seem out of touch with reality.

    In a wet year, it’s hard enough to dry and bale straw and indeed any year it is hard to clear straw from fields quickly without having the added time pressure to cultivate the land in a short time period.

    However, it seems the boat has been missed on these regulations and farmers will now have to deal with it.

    Hopefully common sense will prevail where weather is proving difficult and that where genuine effort is being made to cultivate as soon as possible after harvest, farmers will be seen as compliant.

    Land should not be cultivated in wet conditions and, in some cases, delaying cultivation can allow problem grass weeds to emerge and be controlled.

    While the Barrow catchment is associated with tillage and used as an example of poor water quality, we must remember it takes years to recover damage to water. In the past number of years, the overall tillage area is lower, only seeing slight increases or staying stable in the past four years or so.

    The winter cropping area has increased compared with spring

    The malting barley area which has a lower nitrogen requirement in many cases has increased and the protein area, which does not require artificial N, has increased. The winter cropping area has increased compared with spring to provide more green cover and approximately 40,000ha of cover crops are planted each year collecting nutrients and protecting the soil.

    Tillage is changing and should not be put under undue pressure.

    Further updates

    By 1 July, there are to be requirements set out to help prevent the decline of some red-listed birds largely dependent on tillage land. Many of these birds source feed from over-winter stubble and that food source will be gone if no changes are made. Either way, that food source will decline.

    Other important things to note

  • A register of chemical fertiliser sales will come into effect from 1 January 2023.
  • The period when chemical fertiliser to land is prohibited will be extended by 14 days in zones A, B and C.
  • All arable land sown from 1 January 2023 must be soil sampled.
  • All organic manures applied to arable land must be by low emissions slurry spreading (LESS) equipment or incorporated within 24 hours of application.
  • LESS equipment must be used to spread pig slurry on any holding from 1 January 2023.
  • In 2022, tillage land must be planted or cultivated to create a green cover seven days after harvest or seven days after baling.
  • In all cases, land must be cultivated 14 days after harvest.
  • 6m buffers are now required in critical source areas where crops are harvested late such as maize, potatoes or late-harvested spring cereals.
  • By 1 July, farmers are to be informed how they can leave uncultivated land to provide a food-source for some birds.