© Tim Scrivener

All agricultural land in Northern Ireland should be subject to a one-off, publicly-funded GPS soil sampling and analysis survey, according to an ambitious land management strategy report delivered to ministers.

Improving the health of North Ireland’s agricultural soils has the potential to transform the performance of the livestock sector, says the report, compiled by an expert working group consisting of farmers, environmentalists, officials and food processors.

The Sustainable Agricultural Land Management Strategy highlights that grass utilisation in Northern Ireland is significantly below optimal levels: less than 10% of farmland has an up-to-date soil analysis and 64% of soils are not at optimum pH.

See also: MPs call for policy changes to improve soil health

Sixty-three percent of NI water bodies also fail to meet the “good or better” status required by the EU Water Framework Directive, and only one of its 49 European Priority Habitats is at favourable status.

One of the central conclusions of the report is that healthier soils would deliver better yields of crops and grass that are higher in quality. This would help to reduce reliance on imported concentrates and increase farm productivity and profitability.

The report calls for a publicly-funded soil sampling and analysis survey of all agricultural land, with the results provided directly to farmers.

Four-year plan

It also recommends that support should be provided to translate the soil analysis results into a four-year nutrient management plan.

“We are convinced that it is impossible to address soil health without a major increase in soil analysis at both individual farm and regional levels,” it says.

“Soil analysis is the basis for good nutrient management planning. Those who apply nutrients to their land without soil analysis do so blindly and are unlikely to be making the most appropriate interventions.

“The benefits of soil analysis for agricultural productivity have been known for many years, but not implemented by the large majority of farmers.”

Dr John Gilliland, chairman of the expert working group, said the report sought to empower farmers with very farm-specific, detailed information on their productivity, their soil fertility, their water and habitat quality.

“Only then can they make the right decisions for their own land, which will build an inherent resilience in their farm businesses.”

Other recommendations

  • Take measures to significantly increase the proportion of slurry that is applied on land by trailing shoe, band spreader or shallow injection.
  • Use liming as appropriate to optimise the pH of agricultural land. 
  • Maximise the use of local nutrients by simplifying the administrative burden of moving slurries and manures between farms.
  • Grow more diverse swards and consider greater incorporation of legumes, such as clover.
  • Create a decision-support tool for farmers, based on a database of soil, water, biodiversity and land use, to help farmers change their approach.
  • Provide advice and support for farmers to tackle environmental issues, rather than relying on enforcement action.