Navigating SFI – How fertiliser fits into nutrient management options

Through Defra’s Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme, farmers in England are being rewarded for taking action to improve nutrient management and optimise their input usage.

The 2024 SFI offer includes three nutrient management actions, all designed to enhance nutrient use efficiency on-farm, which benefits both the environment and farm businesses.

Fertiliser remains an important part of crop nutrition, and the SFI scheme does not demand that farmers reduce fertiliser usage – instead, the actions are focused on encouraging farmers to review their current approach to nutrient management and spot areas for improvement.

This blog explains the three SFI nutrient management options in detail, and how each action can help with optimising fertiliser use on-farm.

SFI actions for nutrient management

  1. NUM1: Assess nutrient management and produce a review report

This SFI action offers a £652 payment per year to farmers for carrying out an annual nutrient management assessment and written review report.

Most growers will already be familiar with this process, due to similar requirements for Red Tractor and other assurance schemes.

Completing SFI action NUM1 involves working with a FACTS-qualified adviser to consider and plan how nutrients could be managed more efficiently and effectively for arable crops and grassland. It also covers how organic sources of nutrition could be used alongside traditional nitrogen-based fertilisers, such as OCI Nutramon.

By understanding the nutrient needs of each crop and calculating the nutrient supplies already available in the soil, plus the nutrients that will be supplied by planned organic manure applications, growers can confidently determine the additional nutrients needed to be supplied by fertiliser.

This helps ensure fertilisers are being applied at the right rate, in the right place, and each crop’s nutritional needs are met for optimal yields.

As part of the NUM1 agreement, farmers must show evidence that a FACTS qualified member of the BASIS Professional Register is involved in completing the nutrient management assessment and helping produce the report.

To find a local adviser with the relevant expertise, use the BASIS ‘Find an adviser’ tool.

For more information on how to complete a nutrient management assessment, refer to AHDB’s best practice nutrient management guide.

  1. NUM2: Legumes on improved grassland

This SFI action offers an annual payment of £102 per hectare for incorporating legumes into temporary grassland on arable land, or into improved permanent grassland – either by sowing a new mix of grass and legumes or adding legumes to an existing sward.

Leguminous plants, such as clover or lucerne, have the unique ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, through a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria in their root nodules.

This helps create a balanced nutritional environment for crops when used alongside nitrogen fertilisers.

By establishing and maintaining legumes, farmers can also help protect the soil surface with green cover and generate extensive root growth that benefits the soil in several ways.

For example, legume roots enhance soil microbial activity and build soil structure, preventing erosion and run-off in the event of wet weather.

By absorbing nitrogen, these complex root structures help prevent nutrient leaching into nearby watercourses, protecting local water quality.

Read more advice on how to reduce nitrogen run-off and protect local water quality.

  1. NUM3: Legume fallow

This SFI action offers £593 per hectare annually for establishing and maintaining a seed mix of at least six species that flower from late spring through summer.

The mix can include legumes, non-legume flower species and grasses, such as cocksfoot and timothy.

With the aim of enhancing farmland biodiversity, the legume fallow will provide a food source for birds and pollinators, plus, if located near cropped areas, the mix can also encourage populations of beneficial crop pest predators.

Crucially, the multi-species mix will help improve soil health by adding organic matter through leaf drop and decay, as well as improving soil structure with the diverse root systems improving aeration and water infiltration.

Once the mix is established, the NUM3 agreement specifies that farmers must not graze it with livestock, cut it (except for grass weed control), or apply fertilisers, manures or herbicides (except to weed wipe or spot treat weeds e.g. invasive non-native species).

If you are looking to graze livestock on legumes, the SFI action SAM3 for establishing herbal leys is recommended.

The overall objective is to enhance soils for the benefit of the following crop, optimising nutrition from organic sources, alongside traditional fertiliser.

Nutrient planning to optimise fertiliser use

The ultimate aim of the SFI nutrient management actions is to help farmers develop plans for improving their nutrient use efficiency long-term.

Implementing a tailored nutrient management plan, that includes both organic and inorganic sources of crop nutrition, helps meet the nutrient demands of each crop while considering environmental protection.

To ensure efficient nutrient use this spring, for optimal crop growth, take a read of our in-depth guide to spring fertiliser application.

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