A government-commissioned report by DAERA’s expert working group recommended ending the slurry ban more than a year ago, AgriLand can reveal.

The ‘Northern Ireland Agricultural Land Management Strategy’ was presented to then Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen in October 2016.

The 223-page report, put together by the same expert working group behind the ammonia report, details how new technology should allow farmers to measure soil moisture content in real time with a view to making their own informed decision as to whether or not slurry should be spread.

It recommends for the department to commission research into the viability of using technology for slurry application based on soil conditions, rather than calendar dates.

In 2017 many farmers were forced to use the ‘reasonable excuse’ clause in the slurry ban because weather conditions were too poor for tractors and tankers to access many fields.

Better nutrient management

Ironically, the report claims the proposals would have the potential to improve water quality and reduce pollution – two of the reasons behind the current ban.

It reads: “At present, organic manures cannot be applied to land between October 15 and January 31. Such ‘calendar farming’ rules have been a source of much frustration within the farming community, particularly in milder autumns.

“Since the adoption of the closed period in 2007, technology for precision agriculture has continued to advance.”

The report suggests that ending ‘calendar farming’ would:
  • Ensure better nutrient management;
  • Avoid land being damaged by nutrient application in unsuitable conditions during the current open period;
  • Align nutrient application with the best available science;
  • Reduce run-off of nutrients into water courses;
  • Provide extended grazing seasons where soil conditions are appropriate.

Soil potentiometers

It adds: “Soil potentiometers are now available which can measure soil moisture and temperature on a real-time basis and could potentially identify whether soil conditions are appropriate for the application of nutrient.

“We believe that the best available science should guide decisions on land management. We therefore recommend that research should be commissioned to investigate the feasibility of using these types of innovative technologies on farm to govern nutrient application.”

The report noted that such research should identify the environmental and economic effects of applying nutrients based on soil moisture and temperature conditions, and plant uptake of nutrients both during and outside of the current closed period.

If it can be established that it is environmentally acceptable to apply nutrient during the closed period, where soil moisture and temperature levels are appropriate, we would suggest that those “early adopting” farmers who utilise soil potentiometers should be allowed additional flexibility in their spreading of organic manures.

“We accept that a change in approach to application of nutrient by soil condition may lead to restrictions on dates where spreading is currently allowed but we remain firm in our view that the future of our industry is best served by adopting a science-based approach which maximises flexibility and ‘future-proofs’ for a changing climate.

“We want to see this key issue addressed through a clear and effective set of scientifically-based measures and a sound legal framework that provides legal certainty to operators and avoids unnecessary nutrient losses to water.”