Farm Ireland

Friday 20 April 2018

Mapping technology aims to radically improve soil fertility

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Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

More than 50,000 holdings will use a new Teagasc nutrient management package by the end of 2017 that has the potential to radically improve fertiliser usage on farms.

NMP-Online, which has just gone live, was developed by Teagasc over the last two years for use on schemes such as GLAS and for derogation applications under the Nitrates Directive.

However, Pat Murphy of Teagasc believes the technology has the potential to turn around the disastrous decline in national soil fertility levels to the point where just 10pc of farmland is at optimal fertility, even in some of the country's best agricultural regions.

"This system could radically improve nutrient management and fertiliser efficiency right across the industry," Mr Murphy said. This has obvious benefits given that Irish farmers spent €565m on fertiliser in 2015. A key selling point of the new system is that it will provide the relevant information in the form of an easy-to-read maps of the land farmed.

By overlaying soil sampling results and fertiliser applications on a detailed land parcel map, the system will display the nutrient requirements for each division of the farm while also taking account of statutory limits.

A colour-coded map of each farm will quickly display the land parcels deficient in lime, P and K. "This is a complex system which is putting an easy-to-use tool into farmers' hands," Mr Murphy said. The NMP Online estimates the 'Losses in Production Versus Optimal Fertility'. This single figure estimates the percentage loss in crop yield on the farm arising from sub optimal soil fertility, and quantifies the potential production loss associated with deficiencies of each of the primary nutrients. It also calculates the overall maximum levels of fertiliser which can be used on the farm, and can help develop a fertiliser strategy for the holding using tabular and map outputs.

The first area of focus in drawing up a plot-by-plot fertiliser plan is lime. Based on soil analysis, a liming plan is prepared. Assigning slurry on the basis of requirement rather than convenience is a further element of the overall strategy.

The plan for chemical fertiliser usage focuses on applying the appropriate quantities for the needs of the farm, while staying within regulatory levels and making appropriate allowances for the use of organic manures.

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Hundreds of Teagasc staff and private consultants have been trained on NMP-Online and feedback on the system to-date has been very positive.

Private consultants who talked to the Farming Independent described the package as "excellent". Pat Murphy is hopeful the introduction of the new system will help bring nutrient management and soil fertility onto the agenda for farmers. Just 10pc of the soils tested by Teagasc are of good overall fertility. Good fertility is defined as having a soil P index of 3 or 4, a soil K index of 3 or 4 and a pH of 6.2 or greater. Teagasc findings show that:

• 54pc of soils are below index 3 for phosphorus;

• 50pc of soils are below index 3 for potassium;

• 65pc of soils are below pH 6.2.

"Regulation is often blamed for the fall in fertility. However, it isn't quite that simple. Of the three components regulation only applies to phosphorus. Farmers are not limited in relation to potassium and lime application," Mr Murphy explained.

He blamed falling soil fertility on a combination of regulation, high fertiliser prices, pressure on income, and a failure to put in place sustainable nutrient management practices at farm level.

Mr Murphy said low soil fertility was not limited to areas with poor land.

"The most rapid declines in soil fertility have occurred on some of the most productive farms. For example, on dairy farms in county Cork only 10pc of samples are at optimum level," he pointed out.

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