The roll out of Northern Ireland’s Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS) remains on schedule, according to the project’s management team.

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) is confirming that the vast majority of soil tests required within Zone 1, which comprises all of Co. Down as well as parts of counties Armagh and Antrim, have been taken and analysed.

“Approximately 140,000 soil samples have been taken up to this point. This activity was undertaken by the appointed contracting organisation, RPS Ireland Ltd.,” Alex Higgins, senior scientific officer at AFBI said.

NRM laboratories, based in England, have been appointed to carry out all of the soil analyses and according to Higgins, up to this point just under 120,000 soil samples have been analysed.

“NRM has produced full reports on the vast majority of the samples submitted. A slight back backlog had built up during January and February,” Higgins continued.

“This coincided with the peak of sampling. However, anyone having land sampled at the present time will have a report back very quickly.”


According to Higgins, the RPS teams were allocated blocks of land on a geographic basis. As a result, the actual testing regime was not developed on a per-farm basis, as such. It was carried out on a field-by-field basis.

“Other factors also came in to play. Not getting initial access to fields and issues such as flooding meant that Farm A might have been tested slightly faster that Farm B on an overall basis,” he explained.

“As a result, farmers may have been getting multiple reports, linked to the soil testing and analysis work. But this is simply a consequence of the fact that different fields were sampled at different times.

“But there will also be a mop up report delivered to all farms. NRM is now in receipt of a robot that determines the lost ignition values on a field per field basis.

“Standard equipment just couldn’t cope with the volume of work required, as a result of SNHS.

“There was an initial delay in the delivery of the robot. This was caused by the outbreak of war in Ukraine. However, this is now fully operational,” he said.

“Loss on ignition values reference the amount of organic matter within a soil sample. Our aim is to provide each farm with an overall soil analysis report,” Higgins continued.

“These will be made available to farms within Zone 1 over the coming weeks.”

Higgins points out that organic matter values can be used to determine the amounts of carbon stored in soils across individual farms.

Soil testing

The soil testing work will specifically assess levels of phosphate (P), potash (K), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S).

Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) analysis will be used to determine the aboveground biomass stores (swards, trees, woodland and hedges) on individual farms.

“LIDAR will also be used to develop hydrological maps of each farm surveyed. Again, these will be made available to each farmers. They will specifically highlight areas where run-off risk is highest, where soil nutrients are concerned,” Higgins said.

“As a result, farmers will be able to identify those where reduced spreading of fertilisers can take place.

“Alternatively, they can implement mitigation measures, in order to trap nutrients that would otherwise end up in water courses.

In tandem with the soil analysis results and analyses, a degree of agronomic advice will also be given to farmers, based on the intended cropping use to which a specific field will be put.

“When a farmer registers for SNHS, a future perspective on the use to which specific fields are to be put will be provided,” Higgins said.

“So, for example, Field A could be in grass with the intention on the part of the farmer to maintain it as such. However, the plan for Field B could be to plough up an existing sward and then sow out spring barley.

“So, to take soil pH values as a case in point, if both fields sitting at around 6.0, then the recommendation would be for a zero application of lime on Field A.

“However, lime would be required to boost the soil pH of Filed B, in order to maximise the potential of a subsequent barley crop.”

Soil Nutrient Health Scheme

Higgins stressed the key role of Soil Nutrient Health Scheme as a means of optimising farm efficiency levels right across Northern Ireland.

And it is in this context that the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) will play a key role.

“The system will be totally integrated,” Higgins further explained.

“Yes, the farmers get their report. However, CAFRE has just launched its new training suite. This will allow individual farmers to get a comprehensive training perspective on the relevance of their SNHS results and how these can be fully acted upon.

“There is a lot of very useful information coming back to producers, which is of direct relevance to their own farming operations.

“Farmers get the soil analysis results in tabular format from NRM, but needs to log into their Government Gateway account to get the associated maps and recommendations by field to help them interpret the results.”

With regard to the actual soil sampling processes followed after February 1, Higgins confirmed that RPS had made attempts to contact all affected farmers. This was in light of the fact that the restrictions on spreading slurry had been lifted by that stage.


Higgins also indicated that this had not proven possible in all cases.

“We are aware of the fact that farmers might think that the soil test results generated from fields sampled after the application of slurry might be skewed, where P, K and Mg values are concerned,” he said

“In light of this, farmers can ask to have these specific fields re-sampled next autumn. However, that said, it is very unlikely that a single application of slurry would impact to any great extent on inherent P and K levels.

“It’s simply a case of contacting RPS and requesting a duplicate soil test.”

NI soils

In terms of the trends coming through from the analysis results now available, the AFBI representative indicated that it is still too early to arrive at overall conclusions.

With that said there was a definite indication that many grassland soils had a pH value well below the optimal value of 6.0.

“But Co. Down is different from most other parts of Northern Ireland, in terms of the farming practises followed,” Higgins noted.

“There are a lot of very intensive farms in the area. We expected P index values to be high in many cases. And this has turned out to be the case.

“Rotational cropping is also practised on many farms in Co. Down, which will not be the case in the other SNHS zones.”

Higgins noted the points made publicly by some Co. Down arable farmers to the effect that the soil pH values coming back courtesy of SNHS seemed to be relatively high.

“Soil test results generated within a particular scheme depend on the sampling processes followed,” he said.

“No two soil samples taken from the same field will be identical.

“However, in terms of the actual laboratory analyses carried out under SNHS, the NRM organisation is fully United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS)-accredited and carries out the work required to the highest standards.”

One trend that has become apparent, however, is the higher than expected soil S levels identified, courtesy of SNHS.

Over recent years, it has been generally accepted that levels of this specific nutrient had fallen back in local soils. This was a direct consequence of the reduction in solid fuel usage.

“What’s now apparent is the impact of the fertiliser S that has been applied over the past 10 to 15 years,” Higgins added.

“Sulphur is relatively mobile within a soil. However, a number of compound fertilisers sold in Northern Ireland contain quite large amounts of the nutrient.”

AFBI staff are keen to highlight the fact that while the timetable set out for SNHS is being met, the work carried out so far has been very much a learning process. Tweaks can and will be made to the implementation of the programme.

It’s now a case of looking forwards towards the roll out of the sampling and testing required within Zone 2 – the remainder of Co. Armagh plus all of Co. Fermanagh and south Co. Tyrone.