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27/02/2017
BBC Radio 4

David and Ruth Archer can curse their bad luck in finding that badgers have damaged their slurry pit (or 'lagoon'). But they are by no means the only farmers having to fork out substantial sums in order to comply with the Government's latest Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) regulations.

A year ago the National Farmers' Union (NFU) estimated nearly half of dairy farmers in England would not have enough slurry storage when the rules changed on 1 January this year. Just to stay in business they would have to invest in new storage tanks or different ways of processing slurry. As David said, it is investment just to stand still, with no prospect of a return.

Of course, the rules haven't been changed just to annoy farmers. They are there to protect the rivers, streams and underground aquifers from being polluted by fertilisers or farm waste running off the land.

The UK government has adopted the European nitrates directive and the NVZ strategy stems from this. 62 per cent of England is now covered by NVZs. There is even talk of making the whole country into a zone, so that the same rules apply to everyone. This is because some farmers have complained they are put at a disadvantage compared to neighbours who are not in an NVZ.

Farmers inside a zone - there are maps on the Defra website - have to keep detailed records of where, when and how much fertiliser they spread. There are also closed seasons for spreading slurry, manure and manufactured fertilisers. Different rules apply according to soil type and whether the land in used for grazing or cultivation.


The risks

The Environment Agency may ask to see these records and can prosecute people who don't keep them accurately. It is also a 'cross-compliance' issue, so farmers risk losing part of their single-farm payment if they don't comply.

The big change that came in on January 1 is about the capacity for storing slurry on livestock farms and, again, one rule doesn't fit all farms. Cattle farmers have to be able to store five months' worth of slurry safely. On pig and poultry farms they need six months' storage for slurry and/or manure. It can be a complicated equation.

Many dairy farmers have been advised to separate the solids from their slurry and store that as manure so they would need a smaller tank or lagoon for liquids. This has the additional benefit that the liquid is a very good grassland fertiliser, with less taint than conventional slurry. Cattle can graze the treated land within a few weeks of application.

But this wasn't an option for Brookfield because some years ago David and Ruth got rid of their cubicles and switched to a loose-housed system with the cattle on straw in the winter months. This meant they had less slurry to deal with. Their pit would have been big enough to comply with the new regulations.

If only it hadn't sprung a leak...

Steve Peacock is The Archers agricultural advisor.

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