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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Description KEY FINDINGS
The SLURRY-MAX project looked at a problem posed by the agricultural industry regarding decision-support on organic slurry storage and treatment. The project was partly framed around the idea, that 'there are really good decision support tools out there, but a significant number of people don't engage' (Interview, Farm Adviser, England, 2017). Institutions with responsibility for good agricultural practices (across government and industry) commonly worry that despite much advice being available, farmers are still not managing slurries and manures effectively.
The research has taken a holistic approach informed by economics, agronomy, ecology, biology, modelling and social science. We pose here our conclusions, followed by some recommendations oriented specifically to institutions - including Government and the AHDB - with responsibility for supporting good slurry and nutrient management.
Which producers need help?
• SLURRY-MAX has found that the dairy bias in slurry management decision support has obscured the significance of, and the need for support for, slurry storage and management issues in the beef sector.
• Smaller beef farms producing slurry are least likely to be supported by advisors, the levy board, or to have nutrient management plans in place.
• Good support to help these smaller beef farms manage their slurries more effectively (from both an agronomic and ecological perspective) would equally benefit all cattle slurry producers, large and small, dairy or beef.
Decision Support Tools (DSTs)
• There are several DSTs focused on the management of slurry, manures and nutrient planning.
• The empirical findings of SLURRY-MAX suggest that even when beef farmers producing slurry are aware of the available DSTs, the majority have decided not to use them because they require too much effort for too little return.
• Only 12 out of the 84 beef farmers surveyed at markets and shows said that they use Decision Support Tools (paper or software).
• 8 out of the 11 farmers interviewed for the study had heard of the Decision Support Tools available for nutrient planning and had tried them (PLANET being the most common) but all of those 8 farmers chose not to use such tools.
• Many of these DSTs do not perform well in regard to the factors, previously identified by Rose et al (2016) that encourage DST uptake and use.

Farmers and farm practices
• The focus on deficient farmers (often characterised as 'computer illiterate') needs to be broadened, to understand the ordinary practices of farmers who do not use DSTs, including the routines, rhythms, networks, communities, institutions, infrastructures and technologies that shape their current slurry and nutrient practices.
• Even obviously poor slurry and nutrient practices have a 'logic' for the farmer. Government and industry need to understand this logic in order to help support better practices.
• Only half of the 84 beef farmers surveyed at markets and shows had professional nutrient planning advice.
• Inadequate infrastructure poses a significant constraint on good nutrient management, effectively removing the ability to plan slurry applications.
• Slurry and nutrient management manuals and tools tend to portray slurry as a benign, beneficial nutrient source. Institutions responsible for creating these and for supporting good practice also need to recognize the difficulties and hazards, for farmers, of working with slurry.
• Young farmers should be introduced to 'real' nutrient planning DSTs, adapted for student use, through their agricultural college curricula.

Improvement of DSTs
• There is considerable scope to improve DSTs for slurry and nutrient management for beef farmers.
• A free (or cheap) well promoted and supported nutrient planning tool is needed (in England and potentially Wales) as many smaller beef farmers cannot afford a professional advisor, and farmers are less likely to use an agronomist for pasture than arable crops.
• DSTs must answer questions relevant to the farmer, or farmers will not use them.
• Tools need to guide the farmer through the interface through a step-by-step narrative.
• Existing farm-level data which the farmer has already provided should be imported as data input to any new farmer-friendly DST.
• Any new tool will require ongoing human technical support.
• Even the best DSTs cannot stand in for good face-to-face advice.
• A newly designed tool should support soil and slurry testing so that inputs to nutrient planning are farm-specific.
• A newly designed tool should include information about the costs and benefits of nutrient management options.

On-farm technologies
• Farmers have not expressed the need for any new technologies for the treatment or life-cycle analysis of slurry. Rather the technology they require is simple: adequate infrastructure which stores slurry safely and makes it accessible at the times when nutrients are needed by crops.
• Farmers have, however, shown support for testing and accurate measurements. Institutions responsible for supporting good slurry and nutrient management can consider a range of on-farm technical options for measuring nutrients, and they could make farmer networks more aware of these.
• Technologies that work to alleviate the 'storage problem' (such as flocculation) should be an investment priority.

SLURRY-MAX recommends:
• Re-thinking publicity and campaigns to 're-brand' good slurry management as something that is supported not only in the dairy sector, but across all livestock farms.
• Applying a similar approach to Catchment Sensitive Farming (and expanding its currently limited geographical scope) to support knowledge and best-practice exchanges across England, and between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses in nutrient management support.
• Embedding and supporting the use of the best, most farmer-friendly, free DSTs into agricultural college curricula across the UK.
• Development of a freely available, farmer-friendly, publicly maintained tool aimed at the smaller, less profitable farmers. This is important at the current time to help carry out (now mandatory) nutrient management planning. No such tool currently exists.
• More public-private partnership working and sharing of responsibility to support farmers is needed. Due to the fact that important forms of state support have now transferred to the private sector, discussions need to be held between Government and the agricultural industry (including AHDB). Such discussions need to address how to work together across the regulatory-advisory divide to support farmers to develop good nutrient management practices for the public good.
Exploitation Route Focusing specifically on the beef sector in the UK, the research found that:
• Most surveyed beef farmers do not currently use decision support tools
If institutions want to support better slurry and nutrient management practices we advocate a perspective, that:
• resists a focus on individual farmers and their capabilities and looks, instead, at the whole system which influences and shapes better and worse slurry management practices on farms;
• does not only look towards the biggest slurry producers but also supports smaller farmers whose improved basic practices could make a difference economically and ecologically;
• understands that the solution is not purely technical but is 'socio-technical' in nature, involving wider issues such as - for example - the social relations on farms, the difficulties of changing farm infrastructures;
• considers partnership approaches that incorporate effective slurry management and use within the wider context of good nutrient management;
• acknowledges the wider problems of slurry: as a fertiliser with variable nutrient content; as a material that is difficult to store, handle and transport; as a material that can transmit disease; as a stressor for soil, freshwater and marine ecosystems; as a health and safety issue. These aspects of slurry require recognition so that support for farmers can be designed on multiple fronts.
* considers available technologies that can be used in-field by farmers either to valorise the nutrient content of slurry or to reduce its potential negative effects and increase its usability. Some of these tools are still in development but hold promise for farmers in the future.

SLURRY-MAX recommends:
• Re-thinking publicity and campaigns to 're-brand' good slurry management as something that is supported not only in the dairy sector, but across all livestock farms.
• Applying a similar approach to Catchment Sensitive Farming (and expanding its currently limited geographical scope) to support knowledge and best-practice exchanges across England, and between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of which have different strengths and weaknesses in nutrient management support.
• Embedding and supporting the use of the best, most farmer-friendly, free DSTs into agricultural college curricula across the UK.
• Development of a freely available, farmer-friendly, publicly maintained tool aimed at the smaller, less profitable farmers. This is important at the current time to help carry out (now mandatory) nutrient management planning. No such tool currently exists.
• More public-private partnership working and sharing of responsibility to support farmers is needed. Due to the fact that important forms of state support have now transferred to the private sector, discussions need to be held between Government and the agricultural industry (including AHDB). Such discussions need to address how to work together across the regulatory-advisory divide to support farmers to develop good nutrient management practices for the public good.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/slurry-max
 
Description We have produced a hard-copy 'logo-loop' which contains the key messages of the research. 250 of these have been dissemintaed to relevant participants (e.g. agricultural college lecturers) and organisations (e.g. DEFRA, NE, EA). We have produced a report and diseminated about 200 of these by post to participants and agdencies in agriculture and environment and digital sectors: Waterton, C. , Norton, L., Cardwell, E., Chadwick, D. Gibbons, J., Macintosh, K., Sakrabani, R., and Shrestha, S. (2018) SLURRY-MAX: Holistic decision-support for cattle slurry storage and treatment - techniques for maximum nutrient use efficiencies. Lancaster University. 71 pp. We have produced a website which contains a digital copy of the report: http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/slurry-max
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Sustainable economic and ecological grazing systems - learning from innovative practitioners
Amount £630,864 (GBP)
Funding ID BB/R005710/1 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2018 
End 01/2021