Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue launched a new pilot Soil Sampling and Analysis Programme on Tuesday.

The substantial programme has funding of €10m allocated to it and is aimed as the first step in developing a national baseline of soil parameters and soil health indicators.

In this regard, the programme will focus on three main areas:

  • Macro- and micronutrients for agronomic advice and water quality risk assessment.
  • Soil carbon (C) relating primarily to improving climate objectives and soil health.
  • Farm-level E coli assessment.
  • Expanding further on these objectives, the terms and conditions of the pilot state that the programme will provide the basis for the next generation of soil-specific nutrient management advice and underpin targeted fertiliser and organic manure applications (right nutrient type, right application rate, right time and right place) across all farming systems in Ireland.

    Farmers will also be provided with indicative soil carbon results for their land, which the Department states is an important baseline result on an individual and national level from a soil health and climate change perspective.

    On the farm-level E coli assessment, the Department states the presence of E coli will provide the basis for developing strategies to manage animal, human and environmental health on the farm.

    Samples will be taken over a maximum of 4ha and limited to a maximum of 64ha on each farm, meaning there will be a maximum of 16 samples per farm potentially collected.

    Minister McConalogue said: “Our farmers know that a healthy soil is the bedrock for all farming, be it livestock, tillage or horticulture.

    “A healthy soil equals a healthy crop and grass, and this equals healthy livestock.

    “Having knowledge about soils on our farms and using the knowledge to drive soil health will improve both the economic and environmental sustainability of farms.

    “As well as the soil fertility and soil pathogen assessment, the programme will measure baseline soil carbon levels, which will guide future actions to support carbon farming.

    “It will also provide the basis for the next generation of soil-specific nutrient management advice and underpin targeted fertiliser and organic manure applications across all farming systems in Ireland.”

    Application process

    The programme is voluntary and farmers with a 2021 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) application may apply to participate. Applications will be accepted on a first come, first served basis, with the scheme opening for applications on Monday 27 September.

    In the case that the programme is oversubscribed, a selection process will apply. This will be based on the objective of primarily achieving maximum geographic spread and farm system representation and will also take into account the timing of application.

    Applications must be submitted online through the Department’s agfood system and this may be completed by the farmer or an approved agent acting on behalf of the farmer.

    All 2021 BPS agents will be automatically loaded for soil sampling, meaning BPS agents will have access to the scheme link on without having to register for it through online services.

    Agents will still need to verify with their clients that they wish to represent them, however, and this can be carried out using the SMS (text messaging) authorisation tool available from online services.

    BPS applicants engaging the services of an agent who has not submitted their BPS application and is not approved to act on their behalf will have to complete an agent authorisation form.

    In the course of making an application, there is an additional option whereby an applicant can choose to have their soil analysis results also shared with the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF).

    The Department states that the purpose of this transfer is to enable the ICBF and their associated organisations to assist you in interpreting and managing the results.

    Department obligations

    Soil sampling results will be issued in two phases. Standard Regulatory Nutrient results, including pH, and Morgan’s P and K will issue no later than one month after soil sampling.

    The remainder of the test results will issue no later than three months after soil sampling.

    Results will be emailed and/or posted to the address provided with the 2021 BPS application.

    The terms and conditions also state the Department “may also use data from the pilot Soil Sampling and Analysis Programme (SSP) for the purposes of facilitating the processing of an application for participation in other related schemes operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, or for the purposes of updating information on the relevant databases held by the Department in connection with these schemes (e.g mapping database)”.

    The launch information says that the winning consortium charged with rolling out the programme includes NRM (soil sampling), IAS Laboratories and Farmeye (digital soil management systems).

    Farmer obligations

    Soil sampling will begin in October 2021. The procedure outlined by the Department is as follows: “You will be contacted by a soil sampler to arrange a time to sample soil on your farm.

    “A successful applicant, once contacted by the soil sampler, must facilitate the soil sampling within the specified arrangement agreed.

    “If the soil sampling is not undertaken within the agreed time frame, a farmer will be removed from the programme.”

    Key questions

    Below are a selection of queries which are already cropping up and have been answered by the Department.

    How do I declare my land with my application?

    The land a farmer declared on their BPS application will be land entered into the programme.

    However, a maximum of 64ha can be applied – whichever is the lesser.

    Does all land entered need to be owned by the applicant?

    No, land can be leased, rented or owned.

    Is commonage land allowed in the programme?

    Yes, all land declared on the BPS 2021 will be entered into the programme, based on maximum eligible area.

    Can hill farmers apply?

    Yes, hill farmers can apply.

    How will I know if my application was successful?

    Letters will be posted to the address provided with the BPS 2021.

    Can partnerships apply?

    Farmers in a farm partnership registered with the Department are eligible to apply, provided that the application is made in the same name as the BPS 2021. Land entered will be across the entire partnership holding.

    All partners are jointly and severally responsible for adhering to the terms and conditions.

    The land declared on the BPS for the partnership is subject to the maximum sampling area of 64ha.

    Who will sample my soils?

    Soil will be sampled by qualified soil samplers who are contracted by the soils laboratory.

    When will my soils be sampled?

    Participants will be contacted by soil samplers any time after you receive your confirmation letter of successful participation until the first quarter of 2022.

    Can I spread fertilisers as normal if I apply?

    Yes, although the dates that you apply fertiliser will affect the dates that your soil can be sampled.

    How long will the programme run?

    This pilot programme will run until the first quarter of 2022.

    Can a herd number currently in “REPS of” apply?

    No, “REPS of” herd numbers are not eligible to apply.

    Can anyone in GLAS or REAP apply?

    Yes, this programme is open to farmers who are in GLAS or REAP.