It's hard to get away from the fertiliser debate taking place across the island of Ireland at the present time.
Over the weekend just past, I listened to the latest Tillage Edge podcast from Teagasc during which crops specialist Ciaran Collins – quite rightly – highlighted the importance for farmers to make best use of the organic manures that are available to them.
It was then that I had my moment of epiphany, as I realised that the island of Ireland is awash with the stuff.
It comes in the form of poultry litter, vast tonnages of which are produced by the broiler industry in Northern Ireland on an annual basis.
In fact, so much of it is produced, that large quantities of litter are, as I understand it, transported to Scotland for incineration.
What a waste of an invaluable fertiliser resource!
A decade or so ago, plans were developed to build a poultry litter fuelled waste-to-energy plant on the shores of Lough Neagh. But the project never got off the ground, as full planning permission could not be secured on the back of residents’ objections.
Since then the size of the poultry sector in Northern Ireland has continued to increase at an exponential rate.
So to say that the quantities of litter produced by the sector today are significant would be somewhat of an understatement.
Poultry litter is one of the most concentrated forms of organic nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) available to the farming industry.
As a result, transporting it by road throughout Ireland should not make it an uneconomic proposition for most farmers here, irrespective of how far away they operate from the heartlands of the broiler industry north of the border.
And this is particularly so, given the current state of the world’s fertiliser markets.
To all intents and purposes Moy Park controls both the production and marketing of all the chicken produced in Northern Ireland
So here’s the proposition: why doesn’t an Irish stakeholder group contact Moy Park with the objective of putting in place an effective networking arrangement?
This would allow tillage farmers south of the border wanting to use poultry litter as a fertiliser source to get in touch with broiler producers in Northern Ireland with product to offer.
If the arrangement was suitably formalised, details relating to price and transport charges could be quickly agreed. No doubt, all relevant paperwork regarding the delivery of the litter to the farmers involved could also be formalised.
Now, I know that livestock farmers have a major concern with the nearby spreading of poultry litter, given the risk of cattle contacting botulism.
However, vaccination gets round this problem.
I know a number of cereal growers currently using poultry litter who offer to fund the cost of a botulism vaccination programme for dairy and beef farmers who directly march their ground.
But these are details that can be readily sorted out. The big picture remains that of encouraging the greater use of poultry litter on tillage farms across the island of Ireland.
With nitrogen projected to be making in the region of €600/t next spring, it seems an obvious step forward.
I am not suggesting that litter could be used as a top-up fertiliser source for winter cereals next spring. But it could be spread on spring barley, forage maize, potato and beet ground prior to ploughing.