As reported in last week’s edition, the introduction of an online fertiliser database is one of 37 actions contained within a plan brought forward by Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir to help deal with blue-green algae in Lough Neagh.

The proposal is expected to mirror a similar initiative in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) where a national fertiliser database has been in place since 2023.

The associated legislation in ROI requires co-ops and merchants selling fertiliser to submit monthly sales data, with those individual sales linked to a herd number. Farmers must notify their closing stocks of fertiliser by mid-October each year.

The requirements effectively mean government authorities have detailed information on the quantity and type of fertiliser used annually on Irish farms.

Assuming similar rules are introduced in NI, it will bring a whole new level of transparency to how chemical fertiliser is being used here, particularly when it comes to products containing phosphorus (P).

Remember it is excess P getting into lakes and rivers that is the main water quality issue in NI, and while much of this excess comes from meal feeding and subsequent P in slurry leaching into waterways, spreading P fertiliser is also a contributing factor.

Since 1 January 2020, Nutrients Action Programme legislation has required anyone applying P to be able to prove there is a crop need by way of a relevant soil analysis. Where grassland soils are at P Index 4, no P-containing fertiliser can be spread in any circumstance (applying it is also a waste of money). For grassland at Index 3, only small amounts can be applied for first-cut silage or if reseeding.

Once a fertiliser database is up and running in NI, it will be easy for DAERA inspectors to target visits to those farms still buying the likes of 27:4:4 or 20:10:10 and ask to see recent soil analysis results.

It is a very different dynamic from the current arrangement, where unless there is actually fertiliser visible in the farm yard, it is difficult to prove what is being used and where.