Bovine TB and the Welsh Government’s new water regulations – these are the two top concerns of dairy farmers across Wales in 2019.
For Jeff and Elinor Evans, who farm in Broadmoor, Pembrokeshire, Brexit is ‘not even on the radar’.
Mr Evans said: “What is affecting the farm today is Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs) and bTB – two things the Welsh Government is in charge of.”
The water rules, criticised by farm leaders for being a ‘copy and paste’ of earlier controversial NVZ plans, are due to come into force in 2020. They cover a range of practices, including where and how fertilisers are spread and manure storage standards.
Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths is pressing ahead with the plans despite staunch opposition from Welsh farming unions, who have warned the cost and complexity of compliance will force many farmers to quit the industry.
In 2016, when the Welsh Government first consulted on the proposals, a survey carried out by NFU Cymru found three quarters of farmers did not have sufficient slurry storage to meet the new requirements, with the average cost of upgrading facilities estimated to be nearly £80,000.
Bernard Griffiths, land use policy officer at the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW), sits on the Wales Land Management Forum and the sub-group which was set up by Ms Griffiths to look specifically at agricultural pollution.
He said the Welsh Government was pushing for the changes as a result of media interest in agricultural pollution incidents, of which there are between 140 and 150 every year.
But former NFU Cymru president Stephen James, who chairs two stakeholder groups focused on the issue, claimed the changes would not lead to a cut in pollution.
“All this regulation is not going to guarantee pollution incidents dropping,” he said.
“We have already got a lot of the regulations which theoretically should stop pollution, but pollution is driven by extreme situations or accidents.”
This view is supported by statistics, which show no discernible rise in agricultural pollution incidents over the last 15 years, except during periods of heavy rainfall.
Other industries, such as sewage and forestry, are also known to contribute to water pollution problems but attract less media attention.
Lorna Davis, who heads up a nutrient management collaboration project part-funded by Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and supported by the Welsh Government, explained it was often difficult for sources of water pollution to be identified.
She pointed to the example of Cemaes Bay, North Wales, where agricultural practices were blamed for pollution incidents.
Extensive DNA sampling on the river network in the area eventually revealed that while 50 per cent of the faecal matter in the water was from farming, 25 per cent was from septic tanks and sewage discharges and 25 per cent was from dogs being walked along the beach and stream.
“This was only discovered through an in-depth analysis of the pollution problem,” Ms Davis said.
“We simply do not have that detail across Wales about what the causes of pollution are.”
BOVINE TB COMPOUNDING SLURRY STORAGE HEADACHE
IT is not just the lack of accurate data on water pollution incidents which is causing unease.
Both NFU Cymru and FUW have raised concerns about how difficult and expensive it will be for farmers to follow the new rules, particularly those setting out closed periods for spreading fertiliser.
Peter Howells, NFU Cymru’s county adviser for Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, said: “Closed periods for the spreading of slurry, manure and fertilisers would have a huge impact, especially in an area like this where we see grass growth throughout the year.
“Farming by calendar does not work. You farm according to weather and ground conditions.”
Mr Howells went on to explain closed periods for spreading may make the pollution situation worse.
“We have evidence of that in Pembrokeshire,” he said.
“Natural Resources Wales is monitoring in Bosherston, and since the NVZ was introduced, we have seen spikes in nutrient levels just before the closed period starts and then shortly after it ends.
“This is down to the pressures put on farmers to handle their nutrients in that time.”
For Jeff and Elinor Evans, those pressures are amplified by the fact they are county council tenants.
Mr Evans said: “The county council is obviously under huge financial pressure.
“They are responsible for doing the work here, but they certainly have not got the cash, so it is down to me to spend it.
“I have got a Farm Business Tenancy which ends in 14 years. A slurry store could cost me £120,000, so I have got to spend £8,000 a year, plus interest, for the next few years.
“There is not a huge margin in farming as it is, so there will be people in a similar situation, probably older than me, who will just offload and get out.”
Tenancy complications aside, the Evans family have another water-related headache in the form of bTB restrictions.
Mr Evans said: “We are comfortable at 300 livestock units on our holding, but a couple of years ago, when we were running a suckler herd and we went down with bTB, we were on more than 400 livestock units through no fault of our own.
“My storage capacity for the amount of slurry I was producing was nowhere near what I needed, because all of a sudden I was going up by another third as we could not sell the stores.
“With an NVZ equivalent for slurry handling, it is a job to work around that.”
This often-overlooked friction between bTB restrictions and the new water regulations is one of the reasons NFU Cymru has called for Welsh Government to carry out a thorough impact assessment of the proposed changes.
Mr Howells said: “The assessment needs to consider the many farms under bTB restriction.
“You can have a situation where a dairy farm loses a big chunk of its milking herd, so loses income. Where is the money then to invest in the infrastructure required as part of these regulations?
“You have also got the scenario where farms lose large numbers of replacement heifers, so your future income is affected, which again challenges the ability to invest in infrastructure and storage.”
EVEN farmers who are not under bTB restrictions are likely to face additional costs as a result of the new water rules.
At the moment, the Evans family does not have a formal nutrient management programme.
They now face the prospect of having to pay an agronomist to put their plan on to paper, firstly because of the complexity of such a programme, given the different contractors involved in slurry spreading, and secondly because they fear the threat of penalties for minor mistakes.
Though there are guidance booklets available on NVZ rules, Bernard Griffiths pointed out advice would be needed on a much greater scale if farmers were to get to grips with the new regulations.
Currently, there are only eight dairy officers to assess compliance across the whole of Wales.
“They cannot even manage 5,000 Glastir contracts properly, let alone 16,000 Basic Payment Scheme claims in Wales which would all have to comply with these regulations,” Mr Griffiths said.
It is for these reasons industry bodies have pushed hard for the Welsh Government to adopt a more light-touch, voluntary approach to tackling nitrate pollution.
With this in mind, in 2018, NFU Cymru began the process of setting up the nutrient management collaboration project headed up by Lorna Davis.
The programme is funded by the union and Natural Resources Wales, with partners FUW, Welsh Water and the Welsh Government. It operates on an earned recognition basis, and is designed to improve water quality by working with farmers to use nutrients more accurately and efficiently.
The principles underlying the project are the same as the ‘Blue Flag Farming’ scheme used by First Milk dairy farmers in the Cleddau Catchment, which reduces the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus being released into water courses.
But the collaboration programme also aims to develop best practice, allowing more than 90 different water quality schemes operating in Wales to benefit from quantified performance and environmental returns.
At first, the Welsh Government appeared to welcome the opportunity to work on voluntary measures, but shortly after Ms Davis was appointed to lead the collaboration project, Ms Griffiths made it clear she intended to adopt a regulatory approach.
Stephen James explained he was ‘disappointed’ by the move.
“We had talked about the concept of Blue Flag Farming in our consultation response and then Ms Davis’ appointment was made,” he said.
“Then they said ‘we do not want any of that, we are just going to regulate, because that is what we understand’.
“It is risk aversion which is driving this regulation.”
It may be, however, that there is risk aversion on the part of farmers too, who are keen to avoid any further upheaval with Brexit just around the corner.
Concerns have already been raised that the loss of direct payments could hollow out rural communities across Wales, and now farmers fear these additional regulations could have their own impact on rural employment as work dries up for contractors outside the closed periods.
Mr James also fears the rules could have far-reaching effects on Welsh society and culture.
“If we have this heavy-handed regulation, smaller units or older farmers without a generation following on will fold,” he said.
“We will end up with fewer, bigger dairy farms more quickly. Then there are not as many farms using the local co-op, the local shops and the local schools.
“It will definitely have an impact on the wider rural community.”