Soil analysis results and accompanying field maps have been distributed to farmers who took part in Northern Ireland’s largest baseline soil sampling programme.

Full analysis results are now available for the 132,775 fields which were included in the Northern Ireland’s Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS).

The scheme is a free service, designed to encompass a full soil testing and analysis service of the estimated 700,000 fields farmed in Northern Ireland.

Soil testing and analysis represent only a small part of the scope covered by SNHS.

Farmers will also be supplied with information on the actual quantities of carbon stored in their soils and the nutrient run-off risks associated with each field.

The use of LIDAR technology will also allow for the accurate quantification of carbon tonnages, stored above ground in trees and hedges.

In addition to this, follow-on advice will be made available to individual farmers from the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE).

Speaking at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) Soil Health Conference in Northern Ireland recently AFBI catchment scientist, Rachel Cassidy, outlined that 95% of eligible farmers had participated in Phase 1 of the SNHS.

“Soil sampling and testing is getting underway on Phase 2 farms at the present time,” she added.

The process involves 25 soil samples are taken per field, which are then analysed in terms of pH, phosphate, potash, magnesium, calcium, sulphur and sulphur.

Soil carbon values are determined on the basis of loss on ignition (LOI) tests.

Cassidy said: “SNHS has been designed to provide a base line for farmers, from which they can make the relevant management changes within their businesses.

“But they can’t make these changes in a vacuum. This is why the support advisory services available from CAFRE are so important.

“Farmers can access these on a one-to-one basis or online.”

According to Cassidy, encouraging behavioural change is critical to the success of the scheme.

She detailed that trends identified form the results generated in Phase 1 of the project confirm the challenges posed by soil phosphate levels in many soils.

“Farms with a soil phosphate index have been identified. These are very small in number.

“At the other end of the scale, there are a number of farms not being operated on an intensive basis. Here, soil phosphate levels are quite low.”

“It had been previously suspected that managing soil phosphate would be a major challenge for agriculture in Northern Ireland and courtesy of SNHS, we are now confirming that such is the case. There is a clear link between soil phosphate levels and water quality”, Cassidy added.