Nutrients, fertilisers and manures
How to identify nutrients and trace elements for your land and avoid crop contamination from manure; regulations to follow for nutrients and fertilisers.
Nutrient management can help you save money and reduce pollution. This guide introduces you to the Nutrient Management Plan and tools such as the Planning Land Applications of Nutrients for Efficiency and the Environment and MANNER software to help you work out the nutrients and trace elements you need to add to your land.
This guide also outlines the regulations and controls you need to follow when applying nutrients. These include Cross Compliance Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) under the Single Payment Scheme (SPS), Environmental Stewardship options, as well as several voluntary and statutory controls on the storage and use of fertilisers and manures. These controls are enforced by local authorities and the Environment Agency.
Nutrient management and Cross Compliance
Nutrient management can save you money and improve your farm’s profitability. It also reduces the level of any excess nutrients that can run off your land and pollute water. To protect the environment, you must follow various Cross Compliance regulations about the nutrients you apply to your land.
SMRs and Cross Compliance
If you receive direct farm payments - such as the SPS - and use sewage sludge on your land, you must meet the SMR 3 on sewage sludge. SMR 3 aims to ensure that if you use sewage sludge in farming, there is no risk to human, animal or plant health and no harmful effects on soil. See our guide on sewage sludge, slurry and silage.
SMR 4 - Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) will apply to you if your land is in an NVZ. NVZs cover all land that drains to waters affected by nitrogen pollution - this is about 70 per cent of land in England. See our guide on Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ).
SMR 4 states that farmers in NVZs must not apply more fertiliser nitrogen than crops need. You must think about the amount the crop can uptake and the nitrogen already supplied through soil organic matter, crop residues and organic manure. To comply with SMR 4, you must keep records of your nutrient management plans for at least five years.
The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) inspects farms that receive SPS funding and other direct payments to make sure they meet Cross Compliance requirements.
If your compliance requirements under certain Rural Development schemes conflict with good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC) measures, the Rural Development scheme requirements will usually take priority. You can phone the RPA Customer Service Centre on Tel 0345 603 7777 or email them at email@example.com.
Controls on fertiliser and manure use
As well as Cross Compliance and SMRs, there are voluntary and statutory controls on how to use fertilisers and manures safely. These aim to protect human health and minimise the risk of farm water pollution.
Codes of practice
There are two main codes of practice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that explain good practice in handling, storing and applying fertilisers, manure and slurry. You can find out about the sewage sludge code of practice in our guide on sewage sludge, slurry and silage.
You can also find codes of practice on protecting your water, soil and air in our guide on air, water and soil quality: the basics.
The codes set out how you should:
- avoid polluting water
- protect the soil as a valuable resource
- meet minimum standards for new or improved manure stores
Health and safety controls on ammonium nitrate (AN) fertilisers
AN-based fertilisers are classed as dangerous substances. The Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) offers guidance to farmers on how to use them safely.
Safe and secure fertiliser use
The AIC publishes codes of good practice, guidelines and product data sheets on safe fertiliser use.
In the UK, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) administers the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). This is the EU regulatory system that aims to protect people and the environment from the effects of chemicals. REACH is enforced in England by the HSE, the Environment Agency and local authorities (concerning trading standards).
REACH identifies farmers as ‘downstream users’ of chemicals. This means that you must:
- list all the chemical and agro-chemical substances you use, produce or import
- follow safety measures on the product safety data sheet, any restrictions placed on the substance use and use products within the safe exposure limits
- inform your suppliers of any exceptional ways in which you use the chemicals they supply
You can email the HSE REACH Helpdesk at firstname.lastname@example.org for technical advice and information on how to meet REACH requirements.
Defra guidelines on manure management explain how to minimise the risk of causing water pollution when spreading livestock manures, slurries and organic wastes.
Managing farm manures for food safety
About 96 million tonnes of farm manures - solid manures and slurries - are applied to agricultural land each year in the UK. These are used to boost soil fertility and meet the nutrient requirements of crops. While these are beneficial to agriculture, they can contain food-borne, disease-causing micro-organisms such as:
- Esherichia coli (E. coli) O157
Sources of contamination
The amount of disease-causing bacteria in farm manures can vary, depending on animals’ age, diet and management, as well as by region and season. Contamination of the crop can be caused by:
- application of fresh or inadequately treated solid and liquid manures to land prior to planting or to growing crops
- dung deposits from grazing animals, or application of manure before a crop is established or to growing crops
- yard run-off from manure piles or nearby field
- leached water from stored manures
- contaminated equipment and vehicles
- aerosol or windborne contamination
- use of contaminated water for irrigating crops - eg from rivers, streams or storage reservoirs
- pet and livestock access to cropped areas
Up to 10 per cent of the area used for growing ready-to-eat crops may receive farm manures before planting. It is therefore important that you manage your farm manures efficiently in order to minimise the amount of micro-organisms surviving.
Ready-to-eat crops - such as salads, fruits and vegetables, which are unlikely to be cooked before consumption - are particularly vulnerable to microbiological contamination. You should take extra care when growing, harvesting and packing ready-to-eat crops to minimise the risks of contamination.
Factors that will kill disease-causing micro-organisms
Disease-causing micro-organisms may either be killed in the manure itself during storage or active treatment before use, or after application to your land.
The factors listed will help minimise the amount of micro-organisms in your farm manure:
- high temperatures - in general the higher the temperature the greater the level of kill , above 55°C is particularly effective
- freezing temperatures prevent micro-organisms from reproducing and can reduce numbers
- sunlight and ultraviolet radiation can kill a high number of micro-organisms
- acidic or alkaline conditions increase the speed of kill
- dry conditions - the amount of bacteria in farm manures is usually reduced as manures dry out
- time - many micro-organisms die off over time at a rate that depends on the above environmental factors , e.g. E. coli O157 can survive for several months
How to reduce the risk of contaminating the crop with disease-causing micro-organisms
Stage 1: Before crop establishment, you should:
- select fields carefully to reduce the risks of indirect contamination via surface run-off from manure heaps/stores, and during or following the landspreading of manures
- apply treated or batch stored solid manures and slurries to land before drilling/planting
- not apply fresh solid manures and slurries within 12 months of harvest, including a minimum period of six months before drilling/planting
- not graze fields within 12 months of harvest, including a minimum period of six months before drilling/planting
Stage 2: During growing season, you should:
- not apply manure to growing ready-to-eat crops after drilling/planting
- store solid manures and slurries well away from growing areas
- avoid contamination of crops from aerosol and windborne drift during manure spreading, or by run-off from adjacent fields where manure has been spread
- ensure water sources used on the farm are not contaminated with manures or run-off
- ensure all equipment, including vehicles, is clean
- keep livestock and pets out of cropped areas
Stage 3: During and after harvest, you should:
- ensure fruit that has come into contact with the ground should not be used for human consumption either as fresh fruit or unpasteurised juice, where livestock have grazed in the orchard within 12 months of harvest
- ensure all equipment, including vehicles, and packing crates etc is clean
- keep livestock away from packing and storage areas
- ensure staff observe good hygiene practices
Stage 4: General management - in general, you should:
- include manure handling, storage and application in your food safety hazard analysis or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan and the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health assessment
- record all manure applications and details of livestock grazing on fields used for ready-to-eat crops
- make all manure applications according to guidelines in the relevant Codes of Good Agricultural Practice
These guidelines apply to all ready-to-eat crops but growers of higher risk crops, such as baby leaf salads, may wish to apply more rigorous controls.
Nutrient management planning
You can make best use of manure, sewage sludge, compost, crop rotation and precision farming through nutrient management planning. It helps you match nutrients to specific fields on your farm. To do this, you will need to analyse the nutrient content of soil in your fields every three or four years. This guide will help you to work out the amount of nutrients to give your crops for your local field conditions.
You can download the Tried and Tested Nutrient Management Plan from the ADLib website (PDF, 1.57MB). You can use it to manage your nutrients efficiently and meet Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) regulations. It should be used with the Defra’s Fertiliser Recommendations RB209.
The Tried and Tested Nutrient Management Plan contains two recording sheets:
- Farm Record Sheet - for the whole farm
- Field Record Sheet - for each field
The Tried and Tested Nutrient Management Plan explains what details to record on your Farm Record Sheet and Field Record Sheet for each growing season.
The Plan advises you on applying organic manures and manufactured fertilisers, and details NVZ and Cross Compliance requirements. It includes an Organic Manure Sheet for Planning and an Organic Manure Sheet for Recording actual amounts you apply. It provides straightforward guidance on how to calculate:
- nitrogen application rates for livestock manures and other organic manures
- fertiliser-equivalent of phosphate and potash in manures
To comply with Statutory Management Requirement 4, you need to keep records of your nutrient management plans for at least five years.
Controls on import and export of fertilisers
If you import ammonium nitrate (AN) fertiliser into Great Britain from outside the EU, you must notify Defra at least five days before its expected date of arrival in a British port.
You need to show Defra:
- an identification document - including details of the importer, the AN material, the vessel and port of loading
- a Sample Certificate
- a Detonations Resistance Test Certificate
For more information, or to submit your notification documents, email Defra’s Fertilisers Mailbox at email@example.com.
If you plan to export fertiliser, you will need to apply to Defra in advance for an export certificate, using form EXCA1 (Fertiliser).
You can use compost to improve soil structure and retain more moisture. It also increases biological activity in the soil and provides nutrients - such as potash and trace elements.
Composting diverts green wastes such as vegetation, wood and other organic wastes from landfill, which can play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Using compost can be a useful part of a nutrient management plan because compost helps to return organic matter to the soil.
You can compost green waste produced on your farm - such as hedge and tree prunings, livestock manures and other organic biodegradable farm waste. You can also use green waste from others such as tree surgeons and landscape gardeners - eg garden and plant matter waste.
You must be sure to manage the composting process and spread the compost so it does not cause odours or pollution.
You will need to contact the Environment Agency to register an exemption or apply for an environmental permit for composting waste. You must do this whether you are using waste on your farm or compost made by someone else. You will also need to register an exemption to spread the resulting compost on your land.
Anaerobic digestion (AD)
AD is a process where natural bacteria are used to treat biodegradable materials - such as agricultural manure and slurry, food waste and sewage sludge. This is carried out in a specially designed system where there is no oxygen. The AD process produces a methane rich biogas that can be used to generate electricity and heat. The process also produces a digestate which you can beneficially apply to farmland as fertiliser and/or a soil conditioner.
Agricultural manure and slurry processed in an AD plant is classed as waste, and you must either register an exemption or get an environmental permit for the AD plant.
Digestate output from the AD plant is not classed as waste if the feedstock is only agricultural manure or slurry and it is used on land as a fertiliser. If manure and slurry is mixed with other waste feedstocks, the resultant digestate is classed as a waste. If so, you will need an exemption or environmental permit to spread it on land.
You can find out more in our guide on minimising farm waste, composting and recycling.
You can contact Natural England or Lantra for information about composting workshops and short courses.
Fertiliser Recommendations for Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (RB209)
The eighth edition of the Fertiliser Recommendations for Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (RB209) contains recommendations about the most cost-effective use of lime and major nutrients, such as:
It also provides information about nutrients from organic manures, nutrient management and protecting the environment from diffuse nutrient pollution.
You can also get information from a FACTS qualified adviser.
Principles of nutrient management and fertiliser use
To provide the best crop yields, plants need the correct balance of nutrients throughout their growing cycles.
You need to know the soil type for each field you plan to fertilise as this will affect how fertilisers act on crops.
For information on identifying your soil type, see our guide on soil use.
To find out how much of each type of nutrient to apply to your soil, you will need soil sampling results and analysis for the key nutrients for each field. Soil Nitrogen Supply can be done by a field assessment or by soil sampling and analysis. To find out about how to plan applications of fertiliser, see the page in this guide on nutrient management planning.
Protecting the environment from diffuse nutrient pollution
If you farm in a NVZ (and just under 70 per cent of land in England is in an NVZ) you need to comply with SMR 4 to avoid polluting watercourses and groundwater. For further information on avoiding diffuse water pollution from fertiliser use, see our guides on sewage sludge, slurry and silage and air, water and soil quality: the basics.
Small increases in the concentration of phosphorus in water can cause eutrophication, or nutrient enrichment. This is a serious problem you can avoid by:
- planning nutrient management carefully
- avoiding surface application of organic manures when soil and weather conditions are likely to lead to runoff
- applying small annual dressings of fertiliser, which you work into the soil surface before winter
Ammonia emissions from livestock manures and nitrogen fertilisers contribute to acid rain, and can damage nitrogen-poor habitats such as heathland. Find out about how to reduce ammonia emissions in our guides on sewage, sludge, slurry and silage and air pollution on farms.
Using inorganic nitrogen fertilisers and storing manures both create nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas that is implicated in man-made climate change. To reduce this pollution, use fertiliser efficiently and minimise nitrogen losses. You can find out more about reducing nitrous oxide pollution in our guide on air pollution on farms.
Planning Land Applications of Nutrients for Efficiency and the Environment (PLANET)
The software for Planning Land Applications of Nutrients for Efficiency and the Environment (PLANET) is the free, interactive computerised version of the Fertiliser Recommendations for Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (RB209). Farmers and advisers can get a free download of PLANET software, or a free copy of the PLANET CD. Find PLANET software, documents, patches and updates on the PLANET website (registration required).
PLANET is also incorporated in several commercial software packages for farmers. Find out about PLANET on the PLANET website.
You can use PLANET to:
- find recommendations for fertilising arable, horticultural or grassland crops in each field, each year, based on crop nutrition requirements and nutrients supplied from organic manures, soil and fertilisers
- make a nutrient and manure application plan for a group of fields, which you can modify throughout the year and also use to make field records of what you actually apply
- create next year’s RB209 recommendations from last year’s field records plus other information
- print off field histories and recommendations
Further information on managing nutrients and fertilisers
You can get help and advice on nutrient management from a range of organisations.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) aims to help the farming industry operate as efficiently as possible. Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. It also administers the Whole Farm Approach - a faster, more efficient way for farmers and growers to meet regulatory requirements. Defra’s Nutrient Management Unit offers advice and information about nutrient management and diffuse water and air pollution. You can call the Defra Nutrient Management Unit on Tel 020 7238 5660.
The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is responsible for various farm licences and administering direct farm payment schemes to farmers and growers, including the Single Payment Scheme (SPS). For more information about SPS and how RPA can help your farming business, you can call the RPA Helpline on Tel 0345 603 7777.
In England, the Farm Advisory System advises farmers about Cross Compliance. For further information, call the Cross Compliance Helpline on Tel 0845 345 1302.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. It aims to promote successful and socially responsible agriculture and horticulture, while ensuring the long-term viability of rural communities. You can find out about NFU work and national and regional offices on the NFU website.
You are likely to come into contact with your local authority, since it is responsible for enforcing various regulations about farming, land use, food standards and environmental matters. Local Authority Trading Standards Officers (TSOs), together with Enforcement Officers from the Environment Agency, are responsible for enforcing all fertiliser legislation. Your local authority may also be able to provide further information or resources.
Natural England is responsible for sustaining biodiversity and licensing protected species across England. Find information about Natural England’s work on the Natural England website.
The Environment Agency enforces farmers’ compliance with Nitrate Vulnerable Zones’ regulations, water abstraction licences, discharge consents and agricultural waste regulations. Together with Local Authority TSOs, the Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing all fertiliser laws.
Potash Development Association Helpline
01904 492 009
Environment Agency Helpline
03708 506 506
Agricultural Industries Confederation Enquiry Line
01733 385 230
0845 707 8007
08456 023 864
Natural England Enquiry Service
0845 600 3078
BASIS (Registration) Limited Enquiry Line
01335 343 945
Land Registry (registering unregistered land) Advice Line
0800 432 0432
RPA Customer Service Centre
0345 603 7777
03459 33 55 77
Defra Nutrient Management Unit
020 7238 5660
Agricultural Lime Association Helpline
01733 385 240
Fertilisers Manufacturers Association Helpline
01733 331 303
Cross Compliance Helpline
0845 345 1302
0845 766 0085