NFU Crops – Farming Rules for Water clarity

NFU Crops Board chair Matt Culley

The NFU’s experts continue to analyse the detail of Defra’s 30 March announcement about the application of manures in autumn and winter. Here are the initial thoughts from the NFU’s Crops Board on what the new guidance means in practice.

Defra’s announcement on the application of manures in autumn and winter is welcome relief for members concerned about the prospect of a repetition of last year following the publication of the Regulatory Position Statement (RPS 252) in August 2021. It caused confusion, prompted people to cancel muck for straw deals, and made it very difficult to apply manures in the autumn.

For several years now, the Crops Board has had increasingly serious concerns about the way the Farming Rules for Water were being interpreted by the Environment Agency. We have been calling for improvements and clarification. Rules that were designed to be simple, and to allow farmers to make decisions on the basis of what’s best for their farm, in reality became more complex and contested. This especially in relation to what ‘crop need’ meant. Worst of all, established industry guidance like RB209 was used against us, almost as if it was a regulation.

Organic manure – vital for soil health

The guidance Defra has now issued comes as a direct result of your Crops Board representatives, the wider NFU, other industry representatives, and scientists helping us to make it clear to government and regulators how important organic manures are to the health of our soils and crops.

Applying manures is not an exercise in disposal. Now more than ever, it is about vital nutrient recovery and boosting the organic matter content and health of soils.

We’ve made it clear it is essential that farmers and land managers have the ability to apply them ahead of winter sown crops and on grass. And that this can be done with a risk-based approach and in a way that is safe and protects water quality.

None of us want to see valuable nutrients lost from the soil if this can be avoided, and some of the measures announced will help mitigate this even more. The announcement from Defra doesn’t change the legislation which introduced the Farming Rules for Water in 2018. But it provides clarity and certainty on how it should be interpreted and reaffirms the original intentions behind it.

Practical advice – what we know

So, while it will take time for us to fully digest and analyse the announcement, these are our first thoughts on what it means in practice.

Nutrient management plan – a requirement for your farm

You will have to have a nutrient management plan in place for your farm. In reality, this is already a requirement of the Farming Rules for Water, which stipulates you should plan applications to meet a crop or soil need, and show they won’t cause a significant risk of pollution. The guidance reaffirms this. However, this need not be onerous, and there are simple tools available to allow you to calculate and plan the nutrient requirement of your grass or crops over the growing year, and show that your applications of manures and/or fertiliser are tailored to meet this.

Autumn applications are allowed

The most important single point in the guidance is the acknowledgment that when you plan your manure applications to meet the crop need, it can be based on the need over the annual crop cycle, as the NFU has long argued. As a result, growers will be able to safely apply in the autumn to satisfy the needs of that winter sown crop over the duration of the growing year.

However, in the vast majority of cases, a grower will not be able to apply in the autumn on ground which will remain bare until the spring. It will be expected you will have a crop, or a cover crop of your choice, which you’ve planned to have established by 15 October. This is required to mitigate the risk of run off and leaching from the field over winter. As ever with ‘farming by dates’ this won’t suit every system, but as strongly as we have argued for manures, this requirement has been adopted because of the concern about applications to ground which remains bare.

Readily available nitrogen

There will be a distinction between high-RAN and low-RAN manures, with the distinction drawn at 30% RAN. The RAN (readily available nitrogen) of the manures you are using can be decided on the basis of industry standard figures, or testing. For low-RAN manures like farmyard manure there will be no application rate limits beyond those which already apply as a result of other existing regulations or crop and soil need limits. For high-RAN manures, like some slurries and digestates, there will be an application rate limit of 30m³/ha or 8t/ha for high-RAN poultry manures, per application, between the dates below. No repeat applications will be allowed for at least 21 days.

  • On tillage land, where the soil is shallow or sandy 1 August to end of February; or on other soils 1 October to the end of February.
  • On grassland, for shallow or sandy soils, 1 September to end of February; or on other soils, 15 October until the end of February.

This is also likely to mean changes to some farm practices, and it will be difficult for some to implement. However, it is only through the robust case we have made for manures, and by highlighting the extreme practical difficulties tighter restrictions would cause to some sectors managing and storing manures, that we have reached this position of allowing these autumn applications of higher RAN manures at all.

Phosphorus indices

While much of the recent attention has been on nitrates, one of the more difficult topics of discussion in recent months has been P-indices. These are clearly a long-standing concern for some members, especially in the dairy sector, but also a range of members in areas where the P-index is already high. We have continuously stressed the uncertainty of the science on the role of P-indices in phosphate loss, and practical challenges some farmers face in managing their soil P index. However, Defra has included some regulation of soil P index in their guidance:

Farmers should plan to avoid applying organic manures that raise the P Index above index level 3 or target levels for the soil and crop (whichever is higher) over a crop rotation.

However, a farmer may be able to apply if they can demonstrate that it is not reasonably practical to comply with this  – for example where there is no opportunity to export or treat manures to avoid this risk; or in some circumstances where a farmer imports manures as part of an integrated system, and cannot reasonably avoid the risk of raising the P index above level 3 over a crop rotation as a result. Given the nature of these exceptions, they are likely to require careful planning and justification.


Defra has once again reaffirmed that the Environment Agency will generally prioritise giving advice and guidance before taking enforcement action, and this should include signposting grants and support available to help people better manage manures.

We would have liked to see a transition period to be in place for those sectors, and for those farmers who find complying with these rules the most challenging. Sadly, we didn’t win that argument, but the Defra guidance issued on 30 March recognises the importance of organic manures to all farming sectors, to soil and plant health, and removes the uncertainty and confusion which has caused real concern to growers over the last few years.

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