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15 Jun 2022

Policy measures target fertiliser concerns

As featured in Arable Farming Magazine

Policy measures target fertiliser concerns

by Arable Farming Magazine May issue

A package of policy measures announced by Defra in late March addresses fertiliser cost concerns and uncertainty around the Farming Rules for Water.

Farm groups have broadly welcomed a package of measures from the Government to help with high fertiliser costs but are warning more action is likely to be needed over the coming months.

The policy announcements from Defra came as analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit suggested farmers could be paying an extra £760 million for fertiliser over the next year, assuming prices stay as high as they currently are.

The plans include reversing a proposed ban on urea in England, with a new Red Tractor (RT) standard allowing the use of untreated or unprotected urea fertilisers between January 15 and March 31, and treated or protected urea fertilisers throughout the rest of the year.

This measure will be implemented in April 2023.

Policing body However, some farmers have voiced concerns that RT could become Defras policing body, making the assurance scheme ‘more compulsory than voluntary.

Staffordshire farmer Clive Bailye points to what he sees as the ‘dangerous levels of control RT, a private company, will have over another business, while East Yorkshire grower Stephen Ridsdale highlights that the new standard will only apply to English RT farmers, not their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.

It is really unfair that to pass RT accreditation, English farmers are going to be disadvantaged, he says.

NFU deputy president Tom Bradshaw points out that the scheme is far preferable to the planned ban on uea.

He says: Maintaining access to urea fertiliser benefits every farmer in the country that is using nitrogen fertiliser.

Not only does it give choice to utilise the benefits of untreated urea early in the season, but it also critically, provides price transparency to the marketplace.

To maintain access to this product, Defra wanted to see an auditable industry approach.

Given that RT covers approximaely 95% of those farmers utilisng urea fertiliser, this was the only way to avoid an outright ban.

Farmers looking to undermine this risk losing urea for the whole of the industry.

A Defra spokesman said decisions around RT assurance were ‘a matter for farmers themselves.

‘Unaffected Non-RT members will be ‘unaffected by the new standard and will be able to use untreated urea during the restricted period Defra also announced that new slurry storage grants will be offered this year to help farmers store organic nutrients and reduce dependence on artificial fertilisers.

And a new industry fertiliser roundtable, chaired by Farming Minister Victoria Prentis, met for the first time on March 31.

An update on that meeting was awaited as Arable Farming went to press.

CLA president Mark Tufnell says he is pleased to see Defra taking action but pointed to the massive challenges ahead for UK food production.

He says: If prices continue to stay at this all-time high, Government will need to urgently consider ways of increasing and diversifying domestic fertiliser production.

We hope this will be a central focus of the roundtable Defra has rightly called.

And providing further details on its Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) policy, Defra announced that the first component of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, the SFI, will reward farmers for sowing nitrogen-fixing plants and green manures to substitute fertiliser requirements.

The Government also issued new guidance clarifying the Environment Agencys (EA) role in policing the Farming Rules for Water.

The new document sets out ‘criteria for the EA to follow when applying the directive and was announced by Defra Secretary George Eustice.

Imposing sanctions The EA makes it clear the guidance ‘does not amend the rules, which were introduced in 2018 to reduce and prevent agriculture polluting water sources, but the document does highlight various factors the EA should consider before taking further action or imposing sanctions.

It refers in particular to the use of organic manure and manufactured fertiliser to agricultural land stating that, ‘enforcement action should not normally be taken where land managers have met the criteria and can demonstrate they have ‘planned applications of organic manure or inorganic fertiliser such as a nutrient management plan.

It also suggests farmers look closely at which crops or soils need fertiliser and to avoid using those that raise the soil P index and to avoid ‘significant risk of agricultural diffuse pollution due to nitrate leaching

Government response

Government response to the consultation on reducing ammonia emissions from solid urea fertiliser. An alternative approach delivered through the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme and FACTS advisers from 2023 will mean scheme members can:


  • Only use untreated or unprotected urea fertilisers from January 15 to March 31 each year
  • Use urease inhibitor-treated or protected urea fertilisers throughout the rest of the year Defra will monitor the effectiveness of the scheme and has stated it will introduce regulations if the scheme does not reduce the necessary amount of ammonia emissions.

Sustainable Farming Incentive

Defra will pay to help with the costs of sowing nitrogen fixing plants and green manures in crops to substitute some fertiliser requirements for the coming season and reduce dependence on manufactured fertilisers linked to the price of gas. The scheme is due to launch in June.

Slurry storage grants

Farmers will be able to apply for slurry storage grants, helping them meet the Farming Rules for Water and reducing dependence on artificial fertilisers by storing organic nutrients until needed or for onward processing.

These grants will contribute towards the cost of covered slurry store construction projects, to enable farm businesses to get to six months storage capacity.

The grant will be available for a range of store types depending on what is most appropriate for each farm.

The grant will be a new theme under the Farming Transformation Fund, part of the Farming Investment Fund.

Defra says it intends to open for a first round of applications this coming autumn with more details on the scheme published in early summer to allow a start to be made on project planning.

Farming Rules for Water

The Farming Rules for Water have been a huge area of concern for farmers in England since last year, when the EA issued guidance which indicated that spreading manures in autumn ahead of winter cereals was contrary to the rules.

While the EA did allow some autumn spreading in 2021, it warned that this was just a temporary measure and the rules were likely to tighten this year, says Andrew Atkinson, of Strutt and Parkers farming department.

Going forward farmers will have to be able to demonstrate that they have a nutrient management plan which considers the expected crop nutrient requirements based on RB209 guidance or a FACTS-qualified adviser, the soil analysis of each field and the nutrient content of the manure.

They must be able to prove that any applications are proportionate and there is a soil and crop need, although this calculation can now be based on the annual crop cycle and not just the immediate need of the crop.

The rules on how much manure can be applied will differ depending on whether spreading a manure type that is considered low in readily available nitrogen (RAN) for example, farmyard manure from a suckler cow enterprise or a manure with a high RAN content, such as slurries.

Application limit

Low RAN manures which have a RAN content of less than 30% nitrogen can be spread at any time without any application limit, so long as the wider rules on not exceeding soil and crop need are met and steps are taken to avoid diffuse pollution.

For high RAN manures, which pose a higher nitrate leaching risk, there will be an application rate limit of 30cu.m/ha within certain time periods (see panel, above) and no repeat applications will be allowed for at least 21 days.

Outside of the time periods there will be no application rate limit, so long as it does not exceed crop and soil need.

Mr Atkinson says: The new guidance says that the Environment Agency will generally prioritise giving advice and guidance before taking enforcement action.

However, farmers should not see this development as meaning they can be complacent.

The new rules will remove some logistical challenges, as well as enabling farmers to continue to improve their soils.

But the focus on preventing water pollution remains a clear priority for Government.

Defra is consulting on legally binding targets, following the passing of the Environment Act, and one of these is to reduce N, P and sediment pollution into water from agriculture by 40% by 2037, compared with a 2018 baseline.

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