Farming must highlight the true value of animal manures

The commentary from Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) putting agriculture in the dock, following last week’s water quality report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was entirely predictable.

I would be the first person to put my hands up and confirm that silage effluent is a potent pollutant and that every farmer must strive to keep seepage levels into water courses at a zero level. This is the law, and rightly so.

However, the use of animal slurries and manures by farmers is a different issue altogether. In the first instance, slurry is one of the most valuable assets that farmers have access to. It is not the waste product, which so many environmental organisations refer to it as being.

The fertiliser value of animal slurries is immense. And, on that basis alone, it should – and must – be regarded as a valuable input for agriculture as a whole.

My deep concern, following the publication of the EPA water quality report, is that the slurry issue will be used to prevent the further growth of Ireland’s livestock sectors.

So let’s consider the facts. Yes, there are a number of heavily stocked Irish farms with high phosphate and potash levels. These are the two fertiliser inputs that predominate within slurry. But, in total contrast, there are vast swathes of land in this country which are deficient in both of these important nutrients.

The trick then becomes one of getting slurry away from areas where it is in excess and on to farms where it can be put to best use.  

Surely it’s not beyond the imagination of organisations such as the Department of Agriculture, Teagasc and the Irish Farmers’ Association to come up with a plan that would allow this to happen in a feasible manner – let’s call it a ‘slurry mobility service’.

As I understand it, schemes of this nature already operate in the Netherlands and other countries across Europe.

As part of the envisaged scheme, I would also propose to make soil testing a mandatory requirement. Every field in Ireland would be soil tested at least once every five years. In this way, slurry would be applied in line with actual crop requirements on individual farms and not on the basis of some notional, national figure dreamt up in Dublin.

Soil testing would also confirm the scarily acidic nature of Irish soils and, as a consequence, should encourage farmers to spread more lime. Upping the pH would also act to make the soil phosphate and potash reserves already present on Irish farms more plant available.

Given the tone of the EPA report, which highlights the overall decline in water quality throughout Ireland over the past two decades, it is important for agriculture to come forward now with its own positive proposals on how to best deal with the matter.

Throughout his tenure as Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney made repeated reference to the potential for Irish agriculture embarking on a sustainable intensification programme.

But it’s now pretty clear that vested environmental interests will not let this happen until the farming industry can clearly demonstrate its ability to make best use of the animal slurries and other organic manures produced in this country.