‘We’re not using enough lime at all in this country’

At last night’s consultation meeting on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy in Co. Meath, farmers were urged to consider spreading lime on their land.

Jack Nolan – a senior inspector within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s nitrates, biodiversity and engineering division – told the meeting that lime is under-utilised in Ireland.

He explained that fertiliser use has remained relatively static for the last 25 years, with the exception of last year – where it grew by 12%. There are about 1.5 million tonnes of fertiliser used each year, Nolan added.

We’re not using enough lime at all in this country. We’re producing grass and using fertiliser without having the pH of the soil right. Teagasc surveys show that 90% of Irish soils are at sub-optimum fertility.

“People sometimes say that phosphorous is limited in regulation, so ‘we can’t use enough’ – we’re only using about 40% of the phosphorous that we are actually allowed to use.

Soil samples

“We’re not making proper use of soil samples; one soil sample will cost you between €15 and €25 – which is about the same as one bag of 10-10-20.

“You can make decisions based on [a soil sample]. You can change where you put your slurry and you can change the type of fertiliser that you buy – so there are huge savings to be made,” he said.

Nolan outlined that all of the approximate 50,000 participants in the Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) have been required to take soil samples.

Continuing, he said: “The average farm size is 32ha, so we have 1.5 million hectares sampled for GLAS and they all have to produce nutrient management plans.

But yet we haven’t really seen a change in lime usage; it’s up slightly – but, it’s about half of where it was in the 1980s. If you spent €1,000 this year on 50t of lime, you will see a €7,000 increase over a couple of years.

“That will have a major impact on climate change; because, you will be increasing the fertility of the soil and you will then need to use less fertiliser.

“People are using nitrogen to disguise the fact that their soils aren’t at optimum fertility. You will get grass by putting out nitrogen; but, you won’t need as much nitrogen if your pH is right and if your phosphorous levels are right,” he said.

Grass production

During his presentation, Nolan explained that the impact of increased fertiliser use – combined with the increase in dairy cow numbers since the end of the quota era – on climate change means that we “are way off kilter”.

He outlined that 2017 was the year of sustainable grassland in Ireland.

With grass production currently at 6-7t/ha, Nolan believes we could be producing up to 14-15t/ha.

We’re trying to get it up to 10t/ha and, if we could, that would have a huge impact. If you think about it, the amount of meal that is being fed would have to be reduced.

“It takes better management; it takes putting in paddocks on beef farms; using roadways; measuring the grass – measuring grass is really important. You can plan what you’re going to do when you take out silage,” he said.

Nolan outlined that, if farmers made these changes on their own farms, it could lead to benefits for the environment.