The answers still lie in the soil. But are we asking the correct questions to boost crop yields?
Published 07/12/2011 | 06:00
'The answer lies in the soil' was once a common refrain in Irish farming. Prior to the widespread use of fertiliser and drainage, land quality and depth of soil were paramount in farmers' thinking.
Some land was known as good bullock fattening land. Other ground was deemed to be only capable of fattening heifers. Some land was deemed tillable, while on other soils farmers wouldn't let a plough in the gate.
Early Irish agricultural research also prioritised soils. One of the first tasks of the newly formed Agricultural Institute more than 50 years ago was to embark on the detailed county-by-county National Soil Survey of Ireland.
This detailed analysis was suspended around 1980, when about half of the counties were completed. The science of soil was downgraded as more attention was placed on crops and the animals which were above the ground. There was almost an assumption that all soils could be made equal by fertilisers and drainage.
Many would say that the balance moved too far away from the soil.
Now the pendulum has very definitely swung back to watching what's happening in our soils. Farmers must now carry out routine soil testing and we have to account to big brother for every shake of fertiliser or dung that is applied on our fields.
There was also a renewed interest in field drainage this year as farmers sought to address the field problems encountered during the deluges of 2007-2009.
At research level, Teagasc has set out to complete the abandoned National Soil Survey. Also, the Teagasc crop research centre at Oakpark in Carlow has joined with Johnstown Castle in Wexford under the programme banner of Crops, Environment and Land Use.