Holistic decision-support system for organic slurry storage and treatment techniques for maximum nutrient use efficiencies (SLURRY-MAX)

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Sociology

Abstract

Livestock slurry is a valuable source of nutrients but is not always used efficiently in the agricultural sector in the UK, largely as a result of inadequate infrastructure, land use constraints, differences in soil types and climate, and a lack of integrated planning with inorganic fertiliser use. Better management of slurry which values its potential to meet crop demands for nutrients, or as an energy resource for anaerobic digestion (AD), whilst minimising its negative impacts on land and water quality is necessary to ensure a resilient and sustainable agricultural system, meeting both economic and environmental needs.

Despite a considerable amount of knowledge and practical know-how about slurry storage and use, much of it targeted directly at farmers, slurry management on many farms continues to be ad-hoc and sub-optimal in economic, environmental and social terms.

This project aims to pool together available knowledge on slurry management and use, with expertise about how science can be effectively translated, to improve the effectiveness of slurry produced on beef farms as a nutrient source and reduce its negative environmental impacts.

It will do this by reviewing the current tools available to farmers for slurry management in the devolved countries and elsewhere in Europe. It will then explore (with both current and future beef famers and arable farmers) how they access and use information about the nutrient value of slurries produced (or potentially used) on their farms and how to best manage them. By working with farmers to understand the key knowledge gaps, environmental, cultural and other factors which affect their decision making around slurry management/use we will identify approaches which influence their decision making towards maximising the value of slurry enabling them to make the most of the information available to them. We will also identify the off-farm infrastructural constraints that connect to on-farm practices and currently impede optimal use of slurry.

The outputs of the research (a. information design projects in collaboration with existing tool experts and providers (ADAS); b. incorporation of aspects of social understanding and innovation (e.g. farmer-to-farmer cooperation) into existing tools; c. knowledge production and knowledge exchange with policy around infrastructural innovation for slurry beyond the farm gate) have clear potential applications and benefits. The applications will be primarily relevant for farm level management of nutrients. The research will help enable beef farmers to optimise the nutrient benefits of their slurry to maximise production (of grass and livestock) from their farms and potentially to benefit economically from the export of excess nutrients to arable farms or anaerobic digesters (AD). We would also hope to positively influence the potential for arable farmers to benefit from the export of excess nutrients from beef farms through enhanced production of crops. Finally we hope to discuss with policy and institutional bodies of the off-farm infrastructural constraints that impede optimal use of slurry and to think through off-farm innovations that may be needed to support the on-farm innovations of farmers.

Optimising the use of slurry as a nutrient source on land and reducing the potential loss of nutrients from land due to inappropriate use of slurry will be of significant environmental benefit for land, water and air quality. This will result in significant benefits for both private and public sectors beyond farmers, for example, through decreased costs of water treatment and improved environmental quality for users of the rural environment including tourists, rural dwellers and fishermen.

Planned Impact

Impacts
This project emerged directly from industry stakeholder needs, in particular those of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) for Dairy, Beef and Lamb and Cereals and Oilseeds. In developing the proposal we have had interest and support from AHDB and have also consulted another key player in this arena, ADAS. Through our engagement with these organisations, it is clear that there is a need for and potential value in, a) working with stakeholders at the farm scale to enhance their nutrient management practices and b) highlighting opportunities and constraints affecting landscape scale management of nutrient resources.

The outputs of the research (a. information design projects in collaboration with existing tool experts and providers (ADAS); b. incorporation of aspects of social understanding and innovation (e.g. farmer-to-farmer cooperation) into existing tools; c. knowledge production and knowledge exchange with policy around infrastructural innovation for slurry beyond the farm gate) will be of direct help to beef and sheep farmers, because the information tools and the management of slurry/FYM on these farm types are currently sub-optimal from both economic and environmental perspectives. This results in farmers not using available information and not benefitting from the nutrient contents of their slurry/FYM effectively. It also puts them at risk of breaching environmental regulations due to mismanagement (particularly in Northern Ireland). Costs of bought in fertilisers mean that effective management of on-farm nutrients can be of economic benefit, (in particular slurry can help reduce costs for phosphorus fertilisers); in the longer term farmers may also benefit from income from AD facilities or from transferring slurry/FYM to arable farms. Limiting environmental damage is in the farmers interests both from a regulation perspective but also because the environmental condition of their land (and water associated with it) is often closely tied to their livelihood (e.g. through tourism, drinking water for stock, soil condition etc.).

The research may potentially impact upon arable farmers currently not in receipt of any nutrients from livestock. This project will provide an information hub that can be used by farmers to make decisions on how best to utilise slurry/FYM as a resource in terms its nutrient value to crops and also economic return if they are considering cost of transportation, machinery and other factors. For both livestock and arable farmers there is likely to be social benefit from becoming part of a wider network of farmers.

Other key impacts will include those upon businesses which are closely linked to farming and use/impacts of slurry/FYM, such as the Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and Bioresources Association (ADBA) which advises farmers on AD, or the water companies which are often in the position of having to treat water impacted by diffuse pollution. Water companies in some areas have made substantial investment into managing farm impacts on water sources in such projects as 'Upstream Thinking' by South West Water or 'Sustainable Catchment Management Programme (SCaMP)' by United Utilities. AD companies will benefit from a strategic assessment of the temporal, spatial (and other) constraints facing farmers in term of optimising slurry use and an evaluation of the potential of AD in improving the economic value of slurry and limiting its environmental impacts.

There will be positive impact for Natural England, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (NI), the Environment Agency (England), Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency - all these organisations have remits which include the sustainable management of land and water resources.

National Farming Union will be able to promote the project outputs to promote sustainable handling and use of slurries to farmers within its membership.

Publications


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