Agriculture faces a number of challenges, including producing more food to feed a growing population, while impacting less on the environment. Higher crop yields, from the same, or fewer inputs, are required to supply the increased demand for food, while protecting the environment.
Agricultural production relies on environmental resources such as soil, water and air and is vulnerable to climate change, including flood and drought. Good nutrient management using a balanced long-term approach is part of a sustainable agricultural system that is resilient to both climate and economic change.
Sources of inorganic nutrients are limited and the manufacture of fertiliser requires energy, so recycling of nutrients through organic materials and improving nutrient availability from good structured biologically active soils makes better use of resources.
Ensuring the carefully managed application of all nutrients, including manufactured fertilisers and organic materials, helps to reduce the loss of nutrients that arises when the crop is removed at harvest. Careful planning that maximises the efficiency of fertiliser use and better management of manures can help reduce the amount of nitrogen that is lost as nitrous oxide.
Incorporating organic materials (e.g. composts and manures) plays an important role in increasing levels of organic matter in soil. It can have important agricultural and ecological benefits, such as reducing fertiliser requirements, improving soil condition and biological activity.
Farming can have a major influence on water quality. The main agricultural pollutants are nutrients (phosphates and nitrates), pesticides and other agrochemicals, faecal bacteria and sediment. Losses from the application of manufactured fertilisers and spreading of organic manures can contribute to water pollution.
A nutrient management plan (NMP) is a written plan that describes how the major plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and potassium) will be managed on farm. The plan aims to maximise production and ultimately profit from nutrient inputs whilst avoiding or minimising adverse effects on the environment.
An NMP will:
To maximise the benefits of using an NMP all areas need to be covered and all records utilised. The basis of a plan requires:
All relevant information - Soil type, field cropping, fertilising and manuring history, regular soil analysis for pH, P, K and Mg , nutrient balances – surplus or deficit from applications to previous crops, assessment of soil nitrogen supply every spring before applying nitrogen fertiliser.
Assess crop yield potential -Take account of fertiliser nitrogen and crop produce prices, consider market requirements for quality and quantity of harvested produce, adjust phosphate and potash for expected crop yield.
Assessment of available nutrients - Apply manure/slurry in spring if possible and incorporate rapidly into the soil, make use of manure analysis, calculate available nutrients.
Decisions on the rate, method and timing of fertiliser application - Apply nitrogen to meet periods of greatest demand for it, consider placement of fertiliser for responsive crops.
Careful selection of fertiliser - Consider the cost-effectiveness of alternative fertiliser materials, take account of the nutrient percentage and the availability of nutrients for crop uptake.
Accurate application of fertiliser and manure - Regularly maintain and calibrate fertiliser spreaders and sprayers, keep accurate field records.
A customer wanted to increase milk yields from 8,200 to 10,000 litres, improving milk from forage figures, whilst also improving the silage quality and yield.
The whole farm is tested on a four year rotational basis and a nutrient management plan is compiled each autumn, taking account of the historical cropping and past manure and fertiliser applications. Next year’s crops, including all the grass silage leys are then factored in, taking account the farm’s slurries and FYM. A plan is formulated, allowing any remedial applications such as lime or P and K to be applied in the autumn or following spring and an accurate purchasing plan put into place. Sulphur was also introduced into the equation to help improve yield and quality, something that had been overlooked in the past. Silage leys are reseeded on a four to five year rotation and based on festuloliums, intermediate and some late perennial ryegrasses.
18 months on and the farm is close to an 11,000 litre herd average on all year round calving for all cows and heifers, with over 4,000 litres coming from home grown forage.
Furthermore, the farm has adopted a multi cut approach to silage making which has improved both dry matter yields per hectare and silage quality, but also resulted in very consistent silages. The target is now 50% of milk sold from home grown forage. Attention to detail is the key, with planned careful use of manures, regular soil and slurry testing and a regular reseeding policy to ensure leys stay young and vigorous.
For more information about formulating a NMP or for advice on maximising your farm's forage please speak to your local ForFarmers Account Manager or send an online enquiry to our Forage team:
Contact a Forage Specialist
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