NFU22: Crops focus on nutrient cycling and manure management

First published: 22 February 2022

The crops panel on stage at NFU Conference 2022

© NFU/Jonathan Hipkiss

In their breakout session at NFU Conference 2022, the NFU's combinable crops members looked at the issues around the effective cycling of nutrients and management of manures within arable systems, and discussed the opportunities, barriers and experiences across the sector.

For many growers making the most of nutrients and manures is a hot topic at the moment, with record high prices for fertiliser and manure use under scrutiny from regulators. The session heard from speakers focussed on the latest research in these areas, including farmers innovating to improve the way nutrients are cycled on farm and a European perspective of how the issues around nutrient cycling and manure management are being addressed in the EU.

Fertiliser, nitrogen and NUE

Crops board chair Matt Culley highlighted the work the board had done over the past two years in a wide variety of areas, including fertiliser, nitrogen and resource use efficiency (NUE), Farming Rules for Water, ELMs, net zero and fairness in the supply chain.

On fertiliser, he highlighted the high global demand for fertiliser and the need for a strong domestic, as well as global, supply.

"The crops board focused really strongly on working with Defra and getting the message out there that the issues weren’t just about CO2," he said. "This is so vital to us."

Speaking about NUE, he added: "The pressure of high fertiliser prices and increasing regulation has meant the work we have been doing is vital. We carried out our nitrogen and resource use efficiency survey and we held a crop nutrient workshop where we invited industry experts to talk to members."

ADAS

John Williams, head of soils and nutrients at environmental consulting company ADAS, outlined the key steps in making the most of manure nutrients, including minimising nitrogen losses, spreading manure accurately and evenly, and making sure it was built into the farm’s nutrient management plan.

He also highlighted how the use of bandspreaders to spread slurry could play an important role in ensuring manure was applied evenly and reducing ammonia losses by minimising how much slurry was exposed to the air.

On farm experience

Will Oliver, an arable and poultry farmer from Leicestershire, told the audience about his experiences on his farm and outlined the importance of knowing your soils for effective nutrient cycling.

"Having diversified our business in a wide range of areas, the heart of our business still remains the arable enterprise. Moving into the poultry sector made sense in terms of the nutrients it can offer to our land," he said.

"Having completed my BASIS and FACTS training, and carrying out all the agronomy in-house since 2014, it has been possible to increase our cropping gross margins across the board. However, the movement towards poultry has drastically reduced our bagged fertiliser spend and is already changing the way we farm."

Key to his success in improving nutrient cycling had been the use of analysis and data to ensure organic nutrients were targeted in the most efficient and productive way possible.

Mr Oliver also talked about the benefits of integrating sheep into his crop rotation, which had helped improve soil health and soil organic matter, increased productivity, and helped with the control of difficult weeds like blackgrass and brome.

European perspective

Max Schulman, from Finnish farmers organisation MTK, spoke to the audience about the opportunities and challenges of nutrient cycling in the European Union, as we continue to work with COPA colleagues on common challenges we face. He covered a range of examples and made it clear that some farmers within the EU were dealing with many of the same issues being faced here in using nutrients more efficiently and pushing for a policy environment that supports this.

"We have to be part of putting the legislation in place from day one," he said. "If we get more involved in showing what we can really do, and how we can be part of the solution, we have to sell it. Let’s sell the idea that we need this, but we have to be in the driving seat."

The NFU Crops Board has been working on NUE for some time, and the results of the latest NUE survey of NFU members were presented to the meeting by NFU combinable crops adviser Allie Hesketh. More than 900 members responded. Of those who took part, half had grazed livestock as part of their rotation, while 90% said they tailored the application rate of organic manure. Among the key barriers to the better use of organic manure were regulation, logistics of transport, cost of application and practicality of use.

The evidence gathered will be analysed in further detail and used to make a positive case for manures and fertilisers and show the importance of nutrient cycling to policy makers.

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