By Debbie James

As Welsh farmers await details on proposed nitrate controls, a Pembrokeshire-based agronomist says the planned approach could provide opportunities for improving soil structure in grassland and arable ground.

Wales has stopped short of introducing a blanket approach to nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) designation - the Welsh Government says it will strike a balance between ‘regulatory measures, voluntary initiatives and investment’.

Phil Rees, managing director of PRAg Ltd, says it is understandable why farmers fear the impact restrictions on slurry and fertiliser applications could have on their businesses.

But he believes there could be positive outcomes for farms.

“Farmers are naturally concerned about the prospect these controls will have on their businesses and the costs associated with them,’’ says Mr Rees.

“I can see their reasoning but perhaps it provides an opportunity for a rethink on how farm resources can be used in a way that would be more profitable.’’

There are costs associated with storing slurry during closed periods but those costs could be recouped if slurry is used in a way that is beneficial to soils and crops, Mr Rees adds.

Instead of treating slurry as a waste product, the true value could be recouped by applying it when the soil is more likely to respond.

Mr Rees advises that now is an ideal time to test slurries and manures to establish their nitrogen content. “It may be that a farm can apply more than they think. Record keeping is essential and that’s where we can help.’’

Farmers could add value to these by introducing products that improve their quality by reducing ammonia losses to the atmosphere.

PRAg Ltd is working with farmers to manage their nitrogen utilisation in the most efficient way.

“Farmers need to know where and how they are using inputs, not least because nitrogen and compound fertilisers are so costly,’’ says Mr Rees.

“If they can get more from their muck by applying a nitrogen-rich slurry or farmyard manure at a suitable time of the year, then they can cut their fertiliser costs.’’

Good record keeping is vital and can allow inspections to flow smoothly, Mr Rees adds; farmers need to know when they should apply nutrients and in what volumes.

“We can produce that information in a format that is easy to understand,’’ he says.

Four steps for improving slurry and farmyard manure utilisation

1. Analyse slurry and farmyard manure in January or early February to determine dry matter and nitrogen content

2. Add a nitrification inhibitor to reduce the loss of nitrogen to the atmosphere and increase the value of slurry

3. In an arable situation, take a N-min soil test in January or early February to detect the available mineral nitrogen level

4. Apply slurry and farmyard manure from February onwards, when the soil temperature is rising and grass is growing