“From a dairy point of view, if you have poor soil fertility, you are spending a penny and losing a pound.”

This is according to agri consultant Dr Noel Culleton who is speaking at tomorrow’s NitroFert spring seminar, entitled ‘More for Less. Today’s Fertiliser, Tomorrow’s Food’.

Speaking to Agriland, Dr Culleton explained the correct us of fertilisers will save farmers  money and improve their soil fertility.

“My theory has been the same for many years, especially on dairy farms. It’s the one-three-five balance, grass, silage and concentrates. The cheapest form of feed is grass and to drive as much grass growth as possible you need adequate soil fertility and that is where Phosphorus comes in.”

According to Dr Culleton, poor soil fertility on Irish land is a “national problem” and research has continuously shown there is a decline.

According to the Wexford-based agri consultant, the Phosphorus deficit on Irish soils has increase from 40 per cent 10 years ago to 54 per cent now. “Everybody talks about the benefits of Phosphorus but agriculture without Phosphorus is not sustainable,” he said.

The consultant referred to key research undertaken by Teagasc in the 1960s, which is still used as a barometer today. “The output from a zero Phosphorus field is 40 per cent less grass production. It is as straight-forward as that.

“The consequence of zero Phosphorus is poor yield, poor seasonability and poor digestibility. Again I stress agriculture without Phosphorus is not sustainable.”

Dr Culleton referred to Ireland’s Harvest 2020 targets. “Research shows that some 47 per cent of farms will just be at index one by 2020. This is a calamity.”

He also stressed the importance of phosphorus for soil fertility and, at the end of day, production and profit returns. “A million tonne of extra concentrates will be used in 2020,” he predicted. “From a cost point of view that is not sustainable. This is now a real game-changer for Ireland.

“Forget the global figures for a second, for an individual farmer it is frightening.”

His research looked at, for example, a 40Ha dairy farm with a Phosphorus index one level compared to an index three level and it found a cost difference of €9,000 compared to the €800.

“To me this is a really serious issue.”

He continued: “Ireland is a country that is intrinsically deficit in Phosphorus. During the 1950s and 1990s, farmers put a huge amount of Phosphorus out to combat various diseases. Those problems were all solved and we built a good national asset. But the trouble was we enthusiastically put Phosphorus in all the wrong places.

“There was pollution, the Environmental Protection Agency got on to us and the EU. We had terrible trouble with water run-off of Phosphorus and water quality so the regulations were restricted. But in my view we have overcooked the omelette and our national asset is disappearing.”

Looking to the future, Dr Culleton said Phosphorus will become more scarce, expensive and political. “The problem with Phosphorus is that it is a bit like oil. That means as an asset it will get more scarce, more expensive and more political. Ireland’s future in agriculture is uncertain if we keep running Phosphorus down.”

So what can be done?

Dr Culleton said it is vital farmers get their soil tested and put out the phosphorus required. Secondly, the scientists and researchers should examine the better and more efficient use of phosphorus. And last, but by no means lest, the Government should change its policy for more progressive Phosphorus use.

Nitrofert’s Spring Seminar takes place in Enniscorthy, Wexford tomorrow at 7.30pm in the Riverside Hotel, where Dr Culleton will present his Phosphorus research findings in greater detail.

Pictured fertiliser spreading on grassland. Photo O’Gorman Photography.