John Shirley: REPS' should get a bad rap for turning blind eye to soil fertility
Most of us know that REPS stands for Rural Environment Protection Scheme. Like the Celtic Tiger, REPS was great when it was going strong.
At its peak more than 50,000 farmers were in the scheme. Participants got a REPS cheque in the post of about €6,000 per year on average. At one stage it added over €300m a year to national farm income.
REPS also provided jobs for the boys for Teagasc and other agricultural advisors. On top of all this the scheme was co-financed by the EU. Given that the scheme also helped the environment and tidied up farm appearance, REPS should be regarded as a win-win-win measure.
But was it really?
Now that REPS is winding down it is an opportune time to assess the fallout from it. This is where I formulate another acronym for REPS – Reducing Everybody's Phosphate Scheme.
As an agri-environmental scheme REPS had very fine and noble objectives, some of which may have been achieved. As a driver of soil fertility and farming well-being, REPS was flawed.
It is now quite apparent that the fertility of Irish soils is in rapid decline especially in the vital phosphorous (P) nutrient. Several studies have confirmed this trend.
The most telling message comes from the 35,000 soil samples annually assessed by Teagasc. These show that over the past five years, the proportion of soils deficient in P has jumped from 40pc to 60pc. There were anecdotal reports of pica and depraved appetites in cattle.
These are classic signs of P deficiency which we thought had gone away for good.
REPS, along with the more recently introduced Nitrates Directive, never set out to damage farming in this way. I accept that the authors of REPS were looking for balance between production and the environment based on the science of the day but it is now clear that the science was deficient.
By linking the application of less phosphorous and nitrogen with good farming practice in REPS, farmers were only too happy to reduce outlay on an ever more costly nutrient.
This was a different mindset from the earlier generation of farmers who prioritised soil fertility.
The low output from their unimproved land was still fresh in the memory and they did not want to return to the bad old days.
A major contributor to the flawed recommendations under REPS, Nitrates Directive and the EU Water Framework Directive, is the fact that across the EU soil science research had been abandoned.
Indeed the whole EU had become a research-free zone as far as productive agriculture was concerned.
The minutiae of how soil P is mobilised by the plant or even leached into the ground water is poorly understood. For example, some of the country's top advisers believe that even in soils of high P (Index 4) there is a production response when a small amount of P is applied to a crop. They will argue that soil P is very poorly available to a growing plant. This suggests that high soil P in itself is no threat to the environment.
This constant dribble approach for P is supported by recent Teagasc trials showing a marked response to placing the fertiliser with cereal seeds just as was done with the old combined seed drill.
Nobody wants to damage the environment or water resources, least of all farmers. But if we want to practice prudent farming and properly manage soil fertility the rules on P and N usage must be modified. If the Irish Government wants to reach the Food Harvest 2020 targets it must reverse the national decline in soil fertility.
There is an opportunity this year under the four-year review of Ireland's Nitrates Action Programme to make this happen. Earlier this year the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for the Environment invited submissions to this review.
Teagasc have responded with a detailed submission which is available on their website.
They call for a continuation of the derogation on organic nitrogen and a modification of the sums on the P contribution from feeds imported to the farm and from slurry.
Irish farming is also wary of developments under the EU Water Frameworks Directive. This is the directive covering Minister Phil Hogan's household septic tank inspections.
The good news is that Ireland's water quality is improving. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland has the highest water ratings in the EU with 86pc of ground water, 71pc of river channels and 47pc of lake water at good or high status.
The incidences of E. Coli in drinking water have declined from 90 in 2004 to less than 20 in 2010. There has also been a huge investment by farmers in winter cattle accommodation – so much so that urban waste is now the most likely source of the remaining water pollution.
Of course there is still room for improvement at farm level but I suspect that the timing of N and P application is a bigger factor in losses than overall usage. Heavy rain following the application of fertiliser or slurry remains the biggest threat to the waterways. Management and timing of fertiliser and slurry is key to both best farming and best environmental practices.
In an attempt to address the issue of declining soil fertility Teagasc has formulated a five-step plan.
This starts with regular soil testing, maintaining lime status and matching slurry and fertiliser to the needs of the soil.
Investing in soil fertility was always seen as money in the farm bank. Farmers are coming back around to that mindset after being temporarily distracted by REPS.
For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App