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Farming & Water Quality

26 November 2019
Type Media Article

By Ivan Kelly, ASSAP Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare

We live in a time of great change for Irish, and, indeed, world agriculture. You are all familiar with the forces driving change – Brexit, climate change, the requirement for compliance and food safety. The challenges are endless. Farmers interact with consumers and operate their business in new ways, as new technologies emerge.  In this changing environment, practice change including improved sustainability on farms cannot be achieved without a move away from regulation and a “top down” approach.  ASSAP - the Agricultural Sustainability Support & Advisory Programme is built on the principles of improving water quality through collaboration and advice. It is a change in how we interact with the farming community, from the old “stick” approach of compliance and rules, to a new programme where the emphasis is not on blame but on working together to find practical solutions.

The Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO) scientists analyse the issues in a catchment and reach out to the local community to educate them on their work, while looking for feedback and help in identifying the local issues. Where the scientists identify that agriculture is a significant pressure to waterquality, ASSAP offer a farm visit to help identify suitable mitigation actions (measures to eliminate/minimise risk) to prevent nutrients entering water.

ASSAP has recently started work in the St Clarens catchment in County Galway (see map). The LAWPRO scientists are indicating that Phosphorus (P) and sediment are the main issues from agriculture on part of this catchment. Overland flow, often following heavy rainfall is the most likely pathway for the P and sediment to enter the waterbodies.

Suitable mitigation actions in this scenario include:

Managing Critical Source Areas (CSAs), parts of the farm at particular high risk of input loss. These areas are the gateway to nutrient loss from the land to the waterbody. Particular care in land and nutrient management in these areas is crucial. This allows focus on the mitigation actions to the area of the farm where they will be most efficient.

Buffer margins and riparian margins can help break the pathway of P and sediment to water. Where they are well positioned and maintained, they can not only be a good asset to water quality but a useful source of biodiversity on the farm. Photo 1 showcases best practice in this regard. The watercourse is fenced with a riparian margin of natural vegetation inside. The silage was also mowed back a distance from the fence to allow further watercourse protection. Low Emission Slurry Spreading was used for more efficient nutrient use, with a very good buffer margin from the watercourse.

Land reclamation & Drainage should be minimised in high risk areas, with special attention to reducing sediment loss. Soil type, topography, time of year, reclamation method and proximity to water bodies should all be considered. Maintenance and management of drains influences sediment and therefore nutrient movement. Shallow drain gradient and vegetation is important. Clean in summer and retain bank vegetation where possible.

Nutrient Management Planning, in particular timing and location when spreading chemical and organic fertiliser.  Minimising losses of expensive nutrients to water also improves their efficiency in growing grass. Low emission application technologies such as trailing shoe leads to reduced Green House Gas (GHG) and ammonia (NH3) losses. Similarly, Protected Urea can replace both Urea and CAN to economically produce top grass yields at no net cost, while also significantly reduce emissions. This increased nitrogen retention allows an overall reduction in the amount of fertiliser needed for similar grass yields, a win for the environment and profitability.

All mitigation measures identified during the farm visit are summarised on a confidential written report. This is discussed and agreed with the farmer. All measures are entirely voluntary. This is not an inspection. The ASSAP programme is a new approach, with advice and support to protect waterquality into the future. ASSAP is available to work with all farmers in Priority Areas for Action.

For further information visit: ASSAP in detail