Farmers in Northern Ireland have been urged to participate in the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS) which aims to improve “sustainability and efficiency” on farms.

Tom Elliot, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) agriculture spokesperson, believes it is important for farmers to get involved in the £37 million scheme which officially opens for registration on Monday, June 26.

This year, Zone 2 of the scheme invites registrations from farm businesses across Fermanagh, the west of County Armagh and South Tyrone.

Elliott said: “The scheme began in May 2022 and due to the sheer size of the exercise, Northern Ireland was split into 4 zones.

“Sampling teams have now completed Zone 1, which had a 91% uptake and covered Co. Down and parts of Counties Armagh and Antrim.

“The scheme is being delivered by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) with 27,000 farms and up to 700,000 fields being sampled by the end of the project.”

According to Elliott, all eligible farms will receive a letter, inviting them to join the scheme and also includes instructions on the registration process.

He added: “Before going out to farms, contractors will contact the farmer to check conditions and confirm when they will be sampled.

“The scheme is free and will give farmers detailed information on the status of their soils, which will allow them to target the application of crop nutrients, reduce waste, increase efficiency and improve their economic and environmental sustainability.

“It will also provide an assessment of farm carbon stocks in soils, hedgerows and trees and contribute to the climate change agenda.

The UUP agriculture spokesperson said that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is encouraging all farm businesses in the Zone 2 area to apply for the scheme, “not only so that they can take advantage of all it offers but also because they will be required to participate if they wish to receive future funding”.

“This includes the new farm sustainability payment which can be a crucial income for farms,” he added.

Soil analysis

Meanwhile, it is understood that the SNHS project has to date progressed well.

More than 6,000 farmers in Zone 1 have received soil analysis results for their farms, including pH, phosphorus (P), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S), together with crop specific lime and fertiliser recommendations.

Alex Higgins from AFBI said: “We had a number of teething problems at the outset. This was to be expected with any new programme of this scale.

“But all these issues have been successfully addressed. Now it’s a case of getting on with the work relating to Zone 2.”

He is keen to ensure that all relevant farmers commit to the scheme as quickly as possible.

“The route to making this possible is through the DAERA portal on the UK government portal.

“The SNHS will provide accurate information on the nutrient levels, including pH, P, K, Mg, S and organic matter for each field within a farm business. It will also provide an estimate of the carbon stored within soils, hedgerows and trees.

“This information will help producers to make better use of manures, reduce the risk of nutrients entering waterways and help them to better-manage carbon on their farms,” Higgins added.

From next Monday (June 26) farmers can register for the scheme via DAERA online services, the scheme is scheduled to close on August, 31 2023.