AQUA - Achieving good water QUality status in intensive Animal production areas

LIFE09 ENV/IT/000208

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Contact details:

Contact person: Marco LIGABUE
Tel: +39 0522 436999
Fax: +39 0522 435142
Email: m.ligabue@crpa.it

Project description:


Intensive livestock farming contributes to excessive levels of nutrients such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) in the environment. This can deteriorate groundwater quality, especially through increased nitrate concentrations. An increase in livestock numbers over the past 50 years has generated an increased amount of manure, which in turn has contributed to an increased overall nitrogen load on the environment. Meanwhile, the EU Nitrates Directive (91/676/EEC) places upper limits on the amount of nitrogen from manure that can be distributed on farms. New technologies and tools for reducing environmental impacts therefore need to be promoted to farmers and rural advisory services, which also guarantee the highest levels of productivity and income.


The AQUA project’s main objective was to help reduce water pollution from nutrients at the river basin level by optimising the use of nitrogen and phosphorus from livestock farms, thus reducing nutrients losses to water. This aim would be achieved by:

  • Reducing nitrogen in manure by lowering nitrogen inputs in feedstuffs (using feeding techniques based on low-protein diets);
  • Improving efficiency of fertilisation;
  • Maximising the efficiency of nutrient use (N and P);
  • Promoting manure application for crop rotations characterised by a long growing season and high uptakes;
  • Reducing nutrient losses caused by agriculture through agro-environmental measures and practices;
  • Reducing pressures and impacts within intensive livestock agricultural catchments by separating the solid fraction from manure and transferring this fraction to areas characterised by low fertility or declining soil organic matter; and
  • Improving and simplifying monitoring and controls on farming practices by implementing tools for the traceability and certification of good practices in nutrient management at farm level.

  • Results

    The AQUA project demonstrated how to significantly reduce the pollution of ground and surface water due to the dispersion of nutrients from agricultural sources (N and P), through the optimisation of their use in livestock farms. It managed to reduce the environmental impact of intensive farming and improve the use of resources, while maintaining farm productivity by increasing the efficiency of management practices. The project objectives were achieved through the integration of innovative technical and management practices implemented on a network of 9 demonstration farms situated in Northern Italy (Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto) in those areas where the agro-zoo-technical pressure is greater. Specifically, the project achieved the following results:

    • Reduction of the nitrogen content in manure, through the application of low-protein rations for pigs and through more efficient nitrogen feeding – in pig farms, reductions of 15-20% in the excreted nitrogen and in nitrogen in the field (N present in the effluent at the time of distribution) were achieved; in dairy cattle farms, an average improvement in the nitrogen balance of 10% at farm level was recorded, while in beef cattle farms a reduction of 12% of the excreted nitrogen was achieved. The beneficiary calculates that the amount of nitrogen in the field that can be reduced on a national level is 14 383 tonnes/year, assuming that the dietary interventions are applied to the farms currently with a surplus of nutrients (i.e. 50% of the pig farms and 30% of the dairy and beef cattle farms);
    • Increased fertilising efficiency of nutrients (N, P) contained in manure, through the application of innovative distribution techniques on crops characterised by long growing seasons and high nitrogen removal – the reduction of nitrogen excretion through dietary interventions and the improved efficiency of fertilisation has improved the nitrogen balances at all types farms: in pig farms it has been increased by 7-12% (depending on the farm) and in dairy cattle farms by up to 6-10%;
    • Reduction of the loss of nutrients from land to water bodies through specific agri-environmental measures (buffer strips, wetlands) – the reduction amounts to 70% for nitrate nitrogen and 60% for total nitrogen within the first 5 m of the buffer zone (overall width of some 20 m);
    • Reduction of the pressures and impacts in areas with a high density of livestock farming through the separation of manure solid fraction and its transfer out of the Nitrates Vulnerable Zones. A consortium of intensive livestock farms and farms without livestock, which was established in an area of high livestock density of Lombardy, handled more than 1 300 tonnes of manure solid fraction, demonstrating the technical and organisational feasibility of such a solution; and
    • Improvement and simplification of controls in farms, through the development of a tool for the traceability and certification of best practices in nutrient management, from the animal feed to the efficient use of effluents – the tool, ‘Calcola N’, reports the nitrogen excreted and the yield of nitrogen used in the stable or on a specific group of animals in production.
    • The project underlined the fact that current legislation is sufficiently flexible to support the introduction of the practices identified during the project, but it would be still useful to simplify the existing mechanisms for those operators who are willing to adopt virtuous practices and to adhere to certification and control systems. The main message for policy makers is that it would be desirable to move from the current constraints set by the Nitrates Directive (91/676/EC) (fixed limits of nitrogen from manure per hectare, independently from the type of farm - cattle, pigs, poultry, etc. - and from the efficiency of the fertilisers used) to an "efficiency requisite of the entire farm cycle", extending the performance requirements to the entire farm cycle and to all the nutrients (N and P) and possibly to other elements. The project results are also relevant for:
    • The priority objectives of the 7th EAP (Decision N°1386/2013/EU), in particular with the Primary Objective 1) to protect, conserve and enhance the natural capital of the EU, with particular reference to the need to reduce the release of nutrients, improve cycle management of this release, encourage the efficient and sustainable use of resources, and improve the efficiency of fertiliser;
    • The Water Framework Directive (WFD 2000/60/EC) as it helps to obtain the main aim foreseen by the directive of achieving good environmental status;
    • The Marine Strategy Directive, which aims to create more efficient and sustainable cycle of nitrogen and phosphorus in the use of resources.
    • The project also contributed to the implementation of the indications provided by the European Commission in COM (2011) 21 "Resource efficient Europe - Flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 Strategy" for development of investments in younger generations in order to strengthen and enhance their environmental awareness. The AQUA approach could be easily replicated in Italy and in rural areas in other European countries that are characterised by a high density of livestock farms. The techniques can be considered innovative, as the project tested the performance of slurry in different operating conditions, obtaining previously unavailable indications. The project also developed a innovative new instrument for the certification of techniques to reduce losses of N based on the monitoring and recording of activities, in order to ensure the traceability of inputs and outputs of proteins at farm level and the possible transfer of the manure solid fractions out of vulnerable zones. From a cost-benefit analysis, it was shown that an improved diet for livestock, through the balance of the nitrogen administered, allows savings on feed with high-protein content, aside from an improvement in the animals’ health. A reduction of administered medicines and an increase of fertility of cows have been recorded. As a direct economic consequence of the reduction of excreted nitrogen in farms showing a surplus of nitrogen, it is possible to reduce the cost of effluent management. Furthermore, the reduction of water pollution by nitrates from agricultural sources, connected to the application of good practices identified in the project, will improve the quality of drinking water and reduce the cost of treatment. The innovative practices proposed by the project were applied immediately in the 9 demonstration farms (in particular, the use of diets with low-protein content and the agricultural practices with high efficiency of nitrogen use) and the application of these innovations is continuing, not for contractual obligations, but for the belief that the environmental benefit achieved does not entail any reduction in terms of production or increases in production costs. The demonstration farms are continuing to apply the project's practices. Furthermore, the results of the project were planned to be used in the review of the water management plans to update the programme of measures. Finally, the results related to the best practices for the effluent management tested in the project have been used during the project lifetime for the definition of the measures of the national Rural Development Programme (PSR), in particular for the regions of northern Italy, where the demonstrative farms are located, both with reference to measures recently funded for the last programming period 2007-2013, and for the next PSR programme 2014-2020, with the aim of promote virtuous practices aimed at increasing the nitrogen efficiency.

      Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).


Environmental issues addressed:


Water - Water quality improvement
Water - Water resources protection
Industry-Production - Agriculture - Forestry


diffuse pollution‚  animal husbandry‚  environmental impact of agriculture‚  river‚  water quality improvement‚  groundwater

Target EU Legislation

  • Water
  • Directive 91/676 - Protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural so ...

Natura 2000 sites

Not applicable



Coordinator Centro Ricerche Produzioni Animali C.R.P.A. S.p.A.
Type of organisation Research institution
Description The Research Centre on Animal Production (CRPA) is a research and consulting organisation dealing with the improvement of the livestock sector and related areas of agro-industry.
Partners Fondazione CRPA Studi Ricerche ONLUS, Italy Consiglio per la Ricerca e la Sperimentazione in Agricoltura, Italy ERSAF (Ente Regionale per i Servizi all’Agricoltura e alle Foreste della Lombardia), Italy Veneto Agricoltura, Italy ERSA (Agenzia Regionale per lo Sviluppo Rurale del Friuli–Venezia Giulia), Italy IPLA SpA-Istituto per le Piante da Legno e l’Ambiente, Italy


Project reference LIFE09 ENV/IT/000208
Duration 01-OCT-2010 to 31-MAR -2014
Total budget 2,634,689.00 €
EU contribution 1,310,901.00 €
Project location Emilia-Romagna(Italia)


Read more:

Project web site Project's website
Publication: After-LIFE Communication Plan After-LIFE Communication Plan
Publication: Layman report Layman report (Italian version)
Publication: Layman report Layman report
Publication: Technical report Project's Final technical report
Video link Video di presentazione del progetto (14.46')
Video link Project's presentation video (14.46')


Project description   Environmental issues   Beneficiaries   Administrative data   Read more   Print   PDF version