Rising water phosphate levels could result in Northern Ireland losing its current EU Nitrates’ Directive derogation as early as next year, according to AFBI’s Dr. Conrad Ferris.

“Phosphate levels have started to increase again, following a period of some years during which they had been declining,” he said.

“And the problem is growing to such an extent that the EU authorities may well step in next year and, at the very least, question what is happening in Northern Ireland where water quality is concerned.”

Ferris was speaking at this week’s AFBI stakeholder conference. He said that, irrespective of Brexit becoming a reality, dairy farmers in Northern Ireland must continue to produce milk of the highest quality, with a key focus being the maintenance of the highest environmental standards.

He added that the issue of the rising phosphate balances on dairy farms must be tackled.

“Using zero, or reduced, phosphorous fertilisers must be part of the mix in this regard,” he said.

“But, to make this work, farmers must significantly increase the amount of soil testing they undertake. There is also an issue pertaining to the uneven spreading of manures across the land base that makes up a farm business.

In quite a number of cases, farmers concentrate the spreading of slurry and manures to the fields directly adjacent to the farmyard. A more consistent spreading pattern is required.

Ferris said that the increasing use of concentrate feeds on livestock farms is adding significantly to the phosphate challenge now facing agriculture in Northern Ireland.

“Currently, the feed trade specifies a phosphorous loading of 5g/kg of fresh ration. However, AFBI research has confirmed that phosphorous levels can be reduced to 3.8g/kg – without impacting on animal performance.

“Making more efficient use of concentrates will also help reduce Northern Ireland’s phosphorous surplus.”

He concluded: “There are a number of options available to the dairy sector, which will serve to improve water quality. But the industry must act now to improve its environmental footprint.”