Giving farmers the up-to-date information and advice they need will deliver behavioural change within agriculture.

This was one of the key points made by Agri-Food and Soil Science (AFBI) project leader, Suzanne Higgins, courtesy of her presentation to the organisation’s recent soils conference.

She added:

“But farmers need both drivers made available to them at the same time.

“The pilot scheme carried out to help develop the business case for the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme provided an insight into how these factors interact.”

The work was carried out with farmers in the Upper Bann and Blackwater catchment areas. It entailed a combination of soil sampling, subsequent analysis and the availability of follow-up advice from College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) staff.

“However, this trend went into reversed, once Covid took effect. It was subsequently identified that the unavailability of CAFRE advisors throughout the period of the pandemic was an issue in this regard.”

“Prior to Covid we were starting to see measurable reductions in the amounts of phosphate run-off into both rivers.    

AFBI is currently carrying out a range of soils-related research project at a regional, farm and individual field level.

Suzanne Higgins again:

“In the context of the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme we are engaged in the development of an alternative phosphate test for basalt soils.

“We know that the standard Olsen test undervalues the amount of phosphate made available to plants in such circumstances.

“Most of the soils in Co Antrim have a basalt-based geology: hence the need to have an alternative phosphate test developed within the next 24 months.”

Higgins also confirmed that new technologies will help farmers to soil-manage fields on a bespoke basis.

She said:

“Satellite imagery is now confirming that the nutrient status within a field will vary from location to location within it.

“It is also possible to identify physical differences at locations within the one filed. For example, some spots will always be wetter or drier than others.

“These factors will impact on the grass and crops yields obtained at these various locations.”

Higgins pointed out that the use of GPS technology will allow farmers to make better use of all crop inputs.

She commented:

“The use of variable rate applicators will ensure the optimal use of fertilisers. At AFBI we are also looking at ways in which farmers can make use of the organic manures that are available to them."