A new area-based Farm Sustainability Payment (FSP) replacing the current Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) is due to be fully rolled out from 2026.

The FSP is set to come with a number of conditions, including that farmers participate in the £37m Soil Nutrient Health Scheme (SNHS) and complete associated training.

Farmers in the first zone (covering Co Down, east Armagh and parts of south Antrim), had their fields sampled last winter and have been provided with soil analysis results. Zone 2, which mainly covers west Armagh, south Tyrone and Fermanagh, is being sampled this winter, with a number of farms already in receipt of initial results.

Once soil analysis has been received, farmers can then register for the training via the CAFRE website.

There are two main options at present. The first allows farmers to work through a series of online videos. At the end of each video there are a number of quiz questions that must be answered correctly before being able to move to the next stage.

The second option is to attend face-to-face training events, which are being facilitated by Countryside Services.

Both the online and face-to-face training is effectively delivered across two sessions. The first looks at key issues around interpreting soil analysis results, managing nutrients and protecting and enhancing soil carbon (see below). The second training session focuses on the completion of a farm nutrient management plan.

This face-to-face training is initially being targeted at farmers in Zone 1 (see box). Places at each event are limited, so farmers must preregister via the business support section of the CAFRE website. It will also be possible to undertake the training by way of an online webinar, although dates are not yet available.

Face-to-face training for farmers in Zone 1. All events start at 7.30pm

  • Tuesday 9 and Tuesday 16 January – Strangford Arms Hotel, Newtownards.
  • Thursday 11 and Thursday 18 January – Bannville Hotel, Banbridge.
  • Tuesday 16 and Tuesday 23 January – Kilmorey Arms Hotel, Kilkeel.
  • Thursday 18 and Thursday 25 January – Mourne Country Hotel, Newry.
  • Tuesday 23 and Tuesday 30 January – Millbrook Lodge Hotel, Ballynahinch.
  • Thursday 25 January and Thursday 1 February – Maginn’s Bar, Castlewellan.
  • Tuesday 6 and Tuesday 13 February – Kilmorey Arms Hotel, Kilkeel.
  • Session one: interpreting soil analysis and managing key nutrients

    For those farmers who opt for online training, they must initially register an account on the SHNS training site, accessed via the CAFRE website.

    There are then a number of short, interactive videos to watch, each of which is followed by a series of questions. Once the process is started, it is possible to log in and out.

    The first video highlights the benefits of soil testing, with the analysis showing pH, phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulphur (S), magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca) and soil organic matter status for each field registered in the scheme. Soil analysis results are valid for four years.

    Understanding soil fertility

    The next set of videos cover issues around soil fertility. Good soil health is determined by the chemical (nutrient status), physical (soil texture and structure) and biological (organic matter status) aspects of the soil.

    A key factor affecting soil fertility is pH, with the optimum for mineral soils being 6.0 in a grassland situation and 6.5 when arable crops are grown. In peat soils, the optimum pH is 5.3 and 5.8 for grassland and arable respectively. A target pH of 0.2 above the optimum is recommended.

    As pH drops, the availability of major nutrients reduces. In a mineral soil with a pH below 5.5, around one-third of all artificial fertiliser applied is effectively wasted and where pH is between 5.5 and 6.0, approximately 21% of fertiliser is not available. Only when pH is 6.0 to 6.5 is 100% of the N, P and K applied, available for plant growth.

    Lime can be spread at any time of the year, but on silage ground it should be applied when closing up fields or after cutting, to avoid the potential for it to interfere with silage fermentation.

    When slurry or urea is applied, lime can be spread seven to 10 days later, but where a field has recently been limed, the best advice is to wait three months before spreading slurry or urea, as the lime will accelerate losses of N to the air.

    Soil analysis report

    The soil analysis report provided to each participant shows the pH and nutrient status for each field along with the level of soil organic matter.

    Larger fields above the maximum size of 4ha have been split and will have multiple samples. For pH, P, K and S, the analysis shows whether they are at optimum (green), below optimum (amber) or above optimum (red) levels. There are also recommendations provided to help correct under or over-supply, dependent on the next crop details given at time of registration.

    The first step towards improving soil fertility should be to correct a low pH and where more than 3t/ac of lime is required, it should be split across two applications.

    For P, the optimum index for extensive grassland (less than 60kg of chemical N applied per year) is 2-, while for arable and intensive grassland it is 2+. Where P is at 3.0 or above, there will be no yield response from applying any more.

    The optimum K index for grassland is 2-, while for S it is Index 2 for grazing and Index 3 for silage.

    The soil analysis report also shows Mg and Ca levels. Mg levels don’t usually impact grass growth, but where low Mg levels are combined with high K levels it can lead to a higher risk of grass tetany.

    If soils are above Index 2 for Mg and lime is required, it is best to use a calcium limestone product.

    Where Mg levels are low and lime is required, the advice is to spread Mg lime.

    Within the soil nutrient health scheme section of DAERA online services it is possible to view a farm map showing each individual field and the relevant nutrient status.

    There is also a run-off risk map available, which identifies the areas where there is a risk of sediment and nutrient loss (especially P) to watercourses following heavy rainfall. For the highest risk areas marked red, care should be taken when applying nutrients.

    Sources of nutrients

    The online training includes a reminder for farmers around the closed period for spreading slurry and fertiliser as well as rules relating to maximum application rates and the distance that should be kept from watercourses.

    There are also details given on the nutrient value of cattle slurry and farmyard manure, as well as pig slurry and broiler litter.

    Nutrient management

    Soil analysis is the first step to managing nutrients, followed by correcting pH through the application of lime. The next step is to identify the target index for P and K and then utilise slurry and manure on fields that need them most. Artificial fertiliser should then be used to top-up nutrients to meet crop requirements.

    The final step is accurate application of nutrients, whether it is avoiding periods when heavy rain is forecast, or ensuring that machinery is properly calibrated. These six steps are then put into practice by way of a nutrient management plan, which is covered in the second phase of training.

    Carbon on farms

    The training also looks at carbon on farms and how it is captured and stored.

    Soil is a large store of carbon and in NI, soils are typically higher in carbon than in many other parts of the world.

    Soil organic carbon is found in organic matter within soils. Disrupting soils during cultivation increases the rate of decomposition and oxidation of soil organic matter and that is why arable soils tend to have a lower carbon content than permanent grassland.

    Our soils also have a high capacity to store more carbon, with research showing that fields managed by the likes of rotational grazing generally have more soil organic content than those set stocked, due to increased organic inputs from manures and crop residues.

    To protect soil carbon, the advice is to avoid bare ground as much as possible, whether by use of minimal till techniques, cover crops or minimising damage by livestock poaching.

    To enhance soil carbon, a number of methods are suggested, including draining mineral soils to improve the activity of soil organisms, incorporating straw, including grassland in a crop rotation, growing deeper rooting crops and legumes, and incorporation of agroforestry.

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