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6 key changes to nitrates regulations for 2023

6 key changes to nitrates regulations for 2023

The Nitrates Action Programme – the means by which the Nitrates Directive is delivered in Ireland – has undergone a number of changes, with stronger measures introduced for the protection of water quality.

Some existing measures were retained, some new measures were introduced and other measures were expanded to become more applicable to more farmers over time, Ted Massey, inspector in the Nitrates and Biodiversity Division in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), told a recent Teagasc Signpost Series Webinar.

These changes follow an interim review of the programme in 2021, which indicated that chemical nitrogen use had increased by ~30,000-40,000t on the previous review completed in 2017, the national dairy herd climbed by 12% over this period – with an increased concentration of cows in the south and east – and 47% of rivers had unsatisfactory levels of river nitrate and 29% of rivers had unsatisfactory levels of phosphorous (P).

As the Nitrates Directive was introduced to reduce and prevent water pollution caused by agriculture, Massey said “there was a clear need to stabilise and reverse those negative trends in terms of water quality and that’s an issue for all farmers because, if we reflect on it, the quality of water in any catchment is representative of the cumulative impact of all pressures on that catchment".

When it comes to addressing the issue of water quality, he added: “it is not an issue of derogation versus non derogation, dairy versus drystock, livestock versus tillage - it’s an issue for all farmers to play their part in reducing the loss of nutrients to water and seeking to reverse those trends.”


  1. Slurry and chemical fertiliser closed periods

A number of changes in terms of the slurry and chemical closed periods are being implemented:

  • Closed slurry period starts October 1st, 2023;
  • Closed period for chemical fertiliser ends 26th January, 29th January and 14th February in zones A, B and C, respectively;
  • Predefined scientific criteria for slurry spreading extension up to 15th Oct or early chemical fertiliser from mid-January.

On the predefined scientific criteria that will allow an extension of slurry or chemical fertiliser applications, Massey said: “these criteria only become applicable in exceptional circumstances and ultimately that will be a ministerial decision for the Minister for Housing in consultation with the Minister for Agriculture”.

2. Slurry spreading methods

In order to make more efficient use and to reduce losses from slurry and organic manures, low emission slurry spreading (LESS) is becoming compulsory for an expanding number of farmers. From this year, it applies to everyone with a grassland stocking rate of 150kg N/ha or above.

Compulsory implementation of LESS expanded on a phased basis:

  • All farmers above 150kg N/ha from 2023;
  • All farmers above 130kg N/ha from 2024;
  • All farmers above 100kg N/ha from 2025;
  • From 2023 onwards, LESS for all pig slurry and LESS for applications to arable land or incorporation within 24 hours afterwards.

3. Soiled water storage and management

Commenting on the changes to soiled water storage and management, the DAFM representative said: "This December we will have a three week closed period for soiled water and that expands to four weeks with the exception of those farmers who are involved in winter milk who have a winter milk supply contract with their processor who have until December 2025 to have that full closed period".

Soiled water closed period:

  • Between 10th December and 31st December 2023;
  • Between 1st December and 31st of December 2024;
  • Between 1st December and 31st December 2025 for winter/liquid milk.

Soiled water storage for dairy farmers:

  • Three weeks storage in 2023;
  • Four weeks storage in 2024;
  • Four weeks storage in 2025 for winter/liquid milk.

4. Nitrogen banding of dairy cows

Banding of nitrogen excretion rates for dairy cows will also occur. Each herd will be assigned to one of three bands each year. Commenting on this, Massey said: “The cow’s excretion rate will depend on the genetics of the cow and how she is managed and the science shows us as milk yield increases, the cow’s excretion rate will also increase".

"Some herds will be assigned to the low band of 80kg N/head/year. Most herds – we reckon around two thirds of herds – will be in the middle band, which will be assigned to 92kg of N/head/year. And for band three, those high yielding herds, they will be assigned to 106kg of N/cow/year and that is a significant change from the overall excretion rate of 89kg of N/cow/year, which was applicable up to 2022," he said.

Table 1: Banding excretion rates for dairy cows

 Milk yield (kg)Milk yield (L)*N (kg/head/year)P (kg/head/year)
Band 1 <4,500 <4,370 80 12
Band 2 4,501-6,500 4,371-6,313 92 13.6
Band 3 >6,500 >6,313 106 15.8

The banding category for each herd will depend on either the herd’s average milk yield on a rolling three-year average basis or for the previous year, which will be obtainable from dairy co-op data. This will then be combined with DAFM ainimal identification and movements (AIMs) data to determine the average milk yield for each herd. For farmers who choose to engage, Massey explained: "They will be defaulted to the high band until they submit information to prove otherwise to us. And the reason for that is a farmer who chooses not to engage should never be at an advantage over the farmers who do choose to engage and follow the legislation,”.

5. Soil sampling

Soil sampling is also becoming mandatory for an increasing number of farmers who don't currently have valid or 'in date' soil samples. From this year, all farmers with a grassland stocking rate above 130kg of N/ha must take soil samples. In addition to this, for arable farmers, all sown arable land must be soil sampled.

“Where soil samples are not taken, the farmer has to assume a phosphorous index of 4 and that means there are implications in terms of chemical fertiliser use. In most cases, chemical phosphorous will not be permitted and there are also implications for farmers who wish to import organic manures,” Massey said.

6. Buffer strips

Farmers are also facing increased requirements regarding buffer strips.

"In tillage land, the regulations introduced last year introduced a 6m buffer strip requirement for the protection of intersecting watercourses. That is where the field is draining down into the watercourse and there is a late-harvested crop being sown. For farmers that are going to plough land for main crop potatoes, maize, sugar beet or fodder beet, they have to leave an uncultivated 6m buffer adjacent to the watercourse in that scenario," he expained.

Furthermore, the previous 2m buffer strip requirement for arable crops has been expanded to 3m from January 1st to align with the CAP Strategic Plan Regulation, while the buffer strip applicable for the application of chemical fertiliser adjacent to surface water is also increased to 3m for all land from the start of this year.

Nitrates and derogation information meetings

Teagasc is hosting a series of nitrates and derogation information meetings for farmers and the wider agri-professional community. These events are nationwide with presentations from local Teagasc staff. There have been a number of changes to the Nitrates Action Programme over the past number of years and these topics will be covered in detail at the meetings. Find your nearest meeting here.