Nitrates Derogation – Weighing up the options

Nitrates Derogation is a cost effective way to allow your herd to grow yet stay within the environmental regulations.
Nitrates Derogation is a cost effective way to allow your herd to grow yet stay within the environmental regulations.

This article looks at the Nitrates Derogation and how it can help farmers develop their business and improve profitability, write Jason McFerran & George Mathers, College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE).

“Nitrogen (N) Loading” is a key component in the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) and is a measure of stocking rate which has an upper limit of 170kg nitrogen per hectare per year (kg N/ha/year). Many farms that have a stocking rate above this limit have adopted different ways of lowering it through a combination of:

q Exporting slurry,

q Renting additional land,

q Reducing livestock numbers.

These are viable alternatives for reducing nitrogen loadings that are just over the 170 kg N/ha/year limit. However, they are increasingly expensive for higher nitrogen loadings and especially when it exceeds 200kg N/ha/year as shown in the example later in this article. So what are the alternatives?

The Nitrates Derogation option

If you have an N loading above 170kg N/ha/year you can apply for a nitrates derogation which will allow you to operate up to a limit of 250kg N/ha/year. The derogation is available if you keep cattle and sheep, but in practice it mainly applies to intensive dairy farms. You need to apply annually for this derogation and keep additional records. The deadline for applications this year is 1 March 2018.

Example - looking at different options for an intensive dairy farm

You are a dairy farmer keeping 100 dairy cows, twenty five 1 – 2 year old heifers and twenty five 0 – 1 year old heifer calves on 46 ha of eligible land. The average quantity of milk sold per cow per year is 7600 litres and the cows are fed an average of 2.4 tonnes of concentrates per year plus an additional 25t for young stock.

The nitrogen loading for this farm is calculated at 234kg N/ha/year and the phosphate (P) balance is 8.8kg P/ha/year using a phosphorus content of 4.8 kg P/tonne for the concentrate inputs.

There are a number of ways you could meet the NAP requirements in this example.

Apply each year for a Nitrates Derogation

Apply for the nitrates derogation by 1st March each year and you can continue to operate with the same levels of livestock and area of land used. You need to keep additional records comprising a Fertilisation Plan and a Fertilisation Account. You can keep these records yourself or you can employ a consultant to help with the records. You should allow an approximate cost of £200-£300 for your own time or a consultant’s fee. Your farm must have at least 80% of the agricultural area in grassland and have a phosphorus balance of no more than 10kg P/ha/year to be eligible for derogation. Up to 5% of derogation farms are inspected each year.

Export slurry

To reduce the nitrogen loading to 166kg N/ha/year 1200 m3 (264,000 gallons) of slurry needs to be exported. This is over 60% of the slurry produced by the herd and it would cost over £3600 to replace this slurry with chemical fertiliser. This cost does not include the cost of transporting the slurry to other farms, which could be substantial. Records of slurry and manure exported in 2017 must be submitted to NIEA online by 1 March 2018.

Renting additional land

An additional 19 ha (47.5 acres) of land would be needed to reduce the nitrogen loading to 165kg N/ha/year. The additional cost of renting this land at £250/ha (£100/acre) would be £4750, but could be much higher in many cases. Suitable land may not be available nearby, and additional transport costs must also be considered.

Reducing livestock numbers

You would need to cut livestock numbers by 30% to reduce the nitrogen loading to 165kg N/ha/year. This could mean a reduction of 30% in sales of milk. The fall in profitability would probably be greater than 30% as many fixed costs would not reduce in proportion to the reduced herd size.

Conclusion

In this example, applying for a nitrates derogation is the most cost effective option to meet the regulations. Many farmers are currently not applying for the derogation but taking alternative approaches to meet the nitrogen loading limit. You need to consider how you want to see your farm business develop in the future as the nitrates derogation does allow farms to grow by allowing herd size to increase. This is an important consideration when considering a farm business’s future viability and profitability. As previously stated if you apply for the nitrates derogation you will need to keep additional records and have a good administration system to ensure that important deadlines are not missed.

If you need a nitrates derogation in 2018 you must apply online at https://appsd.daera-ni.gov.uk/derogationapplication on or before 1 March 2018. Late applications will not be accepted.