Farm Ireland

Monday 19 March 2018

Testing out how much money's in muck

Helen Harris

Helen Harris

This time last year when we got the results back from our soil test we were wondering what we could do to improve our soils. Not just the acidity (pH) and fertility, but the soil structure itself. Many of our fields are in continuous tillage for decades and if you keep taking from a field it becomes very important to give back.

By and large the soil tests showed that most fields had the correct pH. The ones that need it will get lime. The samples gave a very accurate account as to what Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) each needed, and this can be applied exactly as needed in a compound. The same is done with the nitrogen. We treat each crop differently so that we only put out what we feel is needed and when it is needed. Fertiliser is so expensive we need to treat it sparingly.

To help improve the structure and condition of the soil we need to chop straw in or add farmyard manure. Before we started ploughing in the autumn we decided to try poultry litter from a supplier called Gavin Owens. I was surprised how dry it was when it arrived.

It looked like very little on the ground even though we went with 4t/ac. As the contractor spread the manure we had two five furrow ploughs ploughing it down. We then sowed winter wheat straight into it, with all the machines working in the field at the same time.

We sent a sample of the poultry litter away for analysis to see the fertiliser content for our own benefit and for our Nitrates plan. I also took out our weigh-bridge records to see our yields from each field.

I always find it much better to do the Nitrates plan now so when we need to buy in the coming weeks, we have all the information to know what exactly to get. The difference between the total allowed fertiliser with and without the yield bonus was quite surprising. If we include our yield bonus we can spread almost an extra 4t of nitrogen, an extra 1t of P and almost 2t of additional K on the home farm alone.

The 195t of poultry litter had 308kg of 'available' N, 1,424kg of P, and 4,081kg of K. Taking in the total cost of importing and spreading, it will have saved us about €2,000 on our fertiliser bill. However, 45pc of the fertiliser is unavailable this year, so we should see really see the benefit over the next four or five years. In the long run it will save us much more.

We will still have to spread more chemical fertiliser on the fields that got the manure to bring them up to what the crop needs. In this case it's a field of winter wheat that will need an extra 20 units of P and 14 of K.

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The results did show us the difference between what was the recommended fertiliser valuation of poultry litter on the Nitrates plan and what it is in reality. Our sample was lower in nitrogen and higher in potassium.

I would recommend you get it tested so as you know exactly what you are putting on the land. In the Nitrates plan they must give a broad picture of what each type of farm yard manure is valued at in N, P and K.

It's the same principle that applies to soil sampling, so why shouldn't we test all manures to see exactly what their fertiliser content is? It also gives yourself the full advantage of all allowances in your Nitrates Plan.

Next year we plan to do more poultry litter and we may chop straw in other fields, but this will depend on the price of both.

We are also doing trial plots for Teagasc of cover crops in the next few weeks. I hope to have more information on this in the future.

Checking our maps online is the other work that has been occupying both us and our Teagasc advisor, Ivan Whitten. This is the first year that all applications for what was the Single Farm Payment have to be done online.

It is now a 'Basic Payment System' with a greening payment that requires every hedge and watercourse to be checked on the system before your application goes in. This turned out to be a very slow job, so it's a good idea to get that done sooner than later.

We had to walk every field and check that the map related to exactly what was in field. We need 5pc of our farm to qualify as Ecological Focus Area (EFA) this year. But that figure is only for this year, and it looks like it will be higher next year. We have over 9pc, so we are well over the minimum required.

Philip and Helen Harris are tillage farmers in Co Kildare. Follow them on twitter @kildarefarmer

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