Northern Ireland’s (NI’s) Soil Nutrient Health Scheme is now open for applications, according to the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).

The scheme, which is being delivered by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), will be rolled out in stages using a zonal approach over the next four years.

It will provide farmers with vital information on soil nutrient levels for each field on their farm, and significantly, it will also assess soils in terms of their carbon content.

The scheme was officially launched by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) minister, Edwin Poots, recently.

UFU president, David Brown said:

 “The official opening of the scheme marks a major milestone for the NI industry, and we’re delighted to see it getting up and running.

“The data retrieved from the scheme will provide farmers with vital information on soil nutrient levels for each field on their farm as well as an estimate of the amount of carbon stored in their soils, hedgerows, and trees.

“We’ve been reassured by DAERA that it will not use this information from the scheme to regulate farmers but being part of the scheme will be a requirement for future agriculture support payments, a decision that was taken by Minister Edwin Poots.”

He added:

“To begin with, only farmers from zone one (Down and Armagh) are eligible to apply, and will receive a letter from AFBI.

“We encourage them to submit their application as soon as possible as this new scheme will have massive benefits for their farm business, as well as delivering for the environment.

“Farmers in other areas will have the opportunity to apply in future years as the scheme is rolled out across the country.”

Carbon content

Significantly, it has also been confirmed that a number of the soils tested under the new scheme will also be assessed in terms of their carbon content.

These specific results will then be used to calculate an average ‘carbon content’ for every farmed area across all of the six counties.

According to DAERA, NI is setting a high global standard as the first region to establish an extensive baseline of all farms on soil nutrients, below and above ground carbon stocks.

The UFU president said:

“The scheme will help to improve water quality and the progression towards climate-change targets adopting a science-led, evidence-based approach.

“This soil testing and LiDAR scheme has the potential to revolutionise the way we manage our land and soils as a region, helping us understand more precisely what is happening on our farms.”

He concluded:

Farmers will receive specific training to assist them with using the nutrient and carbon data, and we look forward to seeing the positive impact this scheme will have on the environment and the NI farming industry in coming years.”