Water companies from across the UK believe that working collaboratively with farmers is the key to keeping nitrate out of drinking water.

They are dedicated to working with farmers to deliver successful catchment management programmes, specifically where nitrate is concerned.

Presenting at the Cereals Event on behalf of UK water companies, Tim Stephens from Wessex Water said: “Nitrate from fertilisers and manures can be found in some groundwater sources and rivers at concentrations above the 50mg/l NO3 drinking water standard.

“When a key public water supply suffers high and rising nitrate concentrations, we have to make some difficult decisions.

“For example, we might have to abandon that water source, or we might have to spend millions of pounds to build and operate an energy intensive removal plant, or, we can try to tackle the problem at source and work with farmers to improve nitrogen use efficiency.

Many water companies have chosen to tackle the problem at source as this is the most sustainable option. The installation cost of a nitrate removal plant at a groundwater source can be around £8 million, and £250,000 to run annually.

Catchment advisors are working with farmers to reduce nitrate losses through informing, advising and incentivising.

Tim said: “As a first step, we work with farmers to help raise awareness of the issue. We then provide advice on practices that will help reduce nitrate losses to water. And finally, where alternative funding isn’t available, or where farmers incur prohibitive costs by changing farming practices, we’re increasingly offering financial support.”

John Martin, an arable farmer from Dorset, is located in the Wessex Water region and has been working with Tim since 2015 to reduce nitrate leaching into the groundwater of the Milborne St Andrew borehole.

“We identified John as a key farmer as his fields run almost all the way to the borehole. Since then, we’ve helped him implement a range of practices which have reduced the number of months each year that the borehole is taken out of supply due to high nitrate,” said Tim.

John has introduced three key steps to reduce nitrate leaching. This includes reducing post-harvest Soil Mineral Nitrogen (SMN), maximising over-winter green cover and building organic matter.

John said: “I use liquid fertiliser in an effort to reduce costs. It also offers flexibility in terms of application, which means I can apply when the crop needs it.

"A grant from Wessex Water helped me to fit auto-boom shut-off to my sprayer which eliminates overlap on the headlands.

“Since ceasing dairy production in 2000 and focusing on arable production, I’ve been committed to returning more tonnes of dry matter to the soil than I remove at harvest. I do this by chopping every bit of straw that comes out the back of the combine, and by harvesting sunshine by growing cover crops before spring crops are drilled.

“In 2017, I entered a Mid-Tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme which helps to fund most of the cover crops I grow. However, Wessex Water have helped fund any extra fields and they’ve also provided me with a grant towards a seeder unit which sits on the top of our cultivator, allowing me to establish cover crops quickly and cost effectively in one pass.”

John is a firm believer that a well balanced and structured soil will hold onto nutrients like nitrogen better than one that is not. In light of this, he has been working to increase his organic matter levels by between one and two per cent since he started measuring them a few years ago.

“It’s been very useful working with Wessex Water. They can often provide the funding which allows me to take a few risks and try something new without the fear of failure,” said John.

“I’d encourage more farmers to establish close working relationships with their local water companies as the support they offer is second to none”, he said.