Soil testing in new NI measures is a great stepping stone

I heartily agree with the principle now being espoused by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland, to the effect that future area-based support payments must be underpinned by a commitment on the part of the person receiving the money to do regular soil testing.

But the question then becomes: What will farmers actually do with the results they receive from the testing work that is carried out?

The most obvious answer to this conundrum is for DAERA to start assessing soil pH values on a regular basis and use this measure as the ultimate determinant as to whether or not our soils are being managed correctly.

At the end of the day, soil testing is merely a stepping stone to an end point – that of getting our soils to their optimal pH value, in order to drive crop growth.

Ultimately, it is soil pH values that drive the efficient use, or otherwise, of the nutrients that we put on our crops.

And as farm minister Edwin Poots pointed out, when he went on to the BBC Talkback (Radio Ulster) programme last week, getting best value from the fertilisers that we put on our land ticks every box.

This approach ensures that our crops are grown as efficiently as possible while also delivering for production agriculture in terms of its response to climate change.

Looking to the future, agriculture throughout the island of Ireland must be ‘data’ and ‘science’ driven.

Only when we know how big a challenge is can we go on to accurate management decisions that definitively address the issue.

Soil testing has been with us for ‘generations’

Soil testing is a science that has been with us for generations. Now in the 21st century, it has the real potential to drive production agriculture forward in a very meaningful way.

But we already know, courtesy of Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) and Teagasc research, that the vast swathes of our grassland soils are extremely acidic. In other words, they need lime.

Again, this is science that we knew about back in my grandfather’s time. But back in the day we all conveniently forgot about it on the back of cheap, bagged nitrogen and the aggressive advertising campaigns commissioned by the fertiliser companies.

Today, in contrast, nitrogen is extremely expensive while lime remains the best value for money that any farmer can buy into, when it comes to improving soil fertility.

Hopefully, you get a sense of where I am going with all of this.