Drystock farmers are “sleep-walking” into serious nitrates regulation problems by using the wrong fertiliser compounds, a leading farm consultant has warned.

This could result in significant direct-payment penalties and the loss of payments for farmers in area-based schemes such as the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES).

The problems are centred on high phosphorous (P) soils which have generally received high levels of nutrients over the years, said Roscommon farm consultant James Fitzgerald.

Very low levels of P should be applied where soils are index 3 for phosphates or none at all for those deemed index 4.

“Most farmers are totally unaware that high soil phosphorous levels are an issue for them or that they need to justify their use of P in fertiliser by soil sampling,” the Castlerea-based adviser said.

“An awful lot of farmers already have 18-6-12 or 10-10-20 bought – and some even have it spread – because that’s what they have always used,” he added.

Fitzgerald claimed that farmers who are traditionally stocked at between 100kg N/ha and 130kg N/ha are “in the danger zone” for being high index for phosphorous as they are intensive operators who generally feed more meal.

While farmers stocked at 130kg N/ha are required to soil sample, Fitzgerald said all those stocked at over 100kg N/ha should soil sample to ascertain their farm’s exact P levels and then tailor their fertiliser usage accordingly.

Farmers should also be aware that they are buying in P with every tonne of feed purchased, he pointed out.

Farmers who are inspected and fall foul of the nitrates regulations because of phosphorous levels will face direct payment penalties under conditionality rules.

ACRES participants who are not compliant with the regulations also risk losing up to 100% of their payment for area-based actions, Fitzgerald said.

The penalties and loss of payments could total €5,000 to €7,000 on larger units, he maintained.

The INHFA called on the Department of Agriculture to “use a carrot, not a stick” where farmers are not compliant on phosphorous.

“Penalties cannot be an option here,” said INHFA president Vincent Roddy.