Sustainable intensification which is integral to NI’s ‘Going-for-Growth’ strategy (2014) requires increased agricultural output coupled with improved environmental quality. While AEB’s Biogeochemistry and Water Quality Research Programmes are helping the industry to deliver improvements in environmental quality, it is equally important that production capacity is protected and enhanced. In this regard, research is needed to enhance the quality and resilience of the soil resource, which is fundamental to grass-based livestock production, and to improve the efficiency of nutrient cycling within the soil-plant-animal system in order to enhance productivity whilst simultaneously delivering on environmental quality.

Programme focus

The programme has focused on:

  • developing new tools to aid monitoring and managing soil quality and nutrient flux within the soil-plant system
  • province-wide surveys to investigate changes in soil conditions and in the nutrient status of grassland following the implementation of environmental legislation
  • on-farm research and field trials to refine nutrient recommendations for grass production and correct weaknesses in nutrient management strategies
  • meaningful knowledge transfer (KT) and exchanges with peer groups and industry stakeholders

Examples of previous accomplishments in these areas include:

  • The development of a highly reliable method (DRIS) for evaluating the mineral nutrient status of grassland swards, an improved soil P test for basaltic soils which cover 1/3 of NI, and new fertiliser formulations which enhance N-use-efficiency in grass production.
  • Development of GIS resources and applications in land use management resulting in the first ever DM yield maps of cut grassland at sub-field scales, and publication of the Soil Geochemical Atlas for NI (2000) providing a benchmark against which temporal changes in soil nutrient (P, K, C etc) concentrations are being investigated on an on-going basis.
  • Monitoring and refinement of nutrient management strategies on 12 whole-farm dairy enterprises over a 5-year period in a major (€ 8 million) INTERREG collaborative project (DAIRYMAN) involving partners from 10 regions of NW Europe and 132 pilot dairy farms.

In the past 5 years, 32 scientific publications including peer-reviewed papers, conference abstracts and book chapters, and 83 items of KT to specialists and industry stakeholders.

Nationally and internationally, researchers within the NMR Programme are recognised for their expertise and serve on various expert groups including the EU ‘EIP-AGRI Focus Group: Profitability of Permanent Grassland’ (2014-15), the UK ‘Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) Dairy Expert Group’ (2014-15) and the ‘INSPIRE Directive Working Group’ (2012-14). They have delivered invited keynote addresses at several high profile events including debates in Brussels paving the way for the ‘European Innovation Partnership (EIP) in Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability’.

CatchmentCare Project

Managing nutrients on farms: optimising production while minimising losses to the environment.

A video produced by @AFBI_NI for the @CatchmentCARE project. Supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).

Scientific publications

Our research is interdisciplinary and collaborative and involves researchers from across AFBI, and also scientists from leading research organizations including Wageningen University, James Hutton Institute, and Teagasc. Recent scientific outputs resulting from local and international collaborations include:

  • Grignard, A., Bailey, J. S., Boonen, J., Stilmant, D., Hennart, S. (2013). Assessing the potential for improving the economic and environmental sustainability of dairy farming in North West Europe via farm diversification. In: The Role of Grasslands in a Green Future, Proceedings of the 17th European Grassland Federation (EGF) Symposium (Eds Á. Helgadóttir and A. Hopkins), Iceland pp 96-98, June 2013 (ISBN 978-9979-881-20-9).
  • Higgins, S. Morrison, S. Watson, C.J. (2012). Effect of annual applications of pelletised dolomitic lime on soil chemical properties and grass productivity. Soil Use and Management, 28: 62-69. (Impact Factor – 1.97)
  • Doody, D. G., Bailey, J. S., and Watson, C. J. (2013). Evaluating the evidence-base for the Nitrate Directive regulations controlling the storage of manure in field heaps. Environmental Science and Policy, 29: 137-146 (Impact Factor – 3.51)
  • Reid, M., O'Donovan, M., Elliott, C.T., Bailey, J.S., Watson, C.J., Lalor, S.T.J., Corrigan, B., Fenelon, M.A., and Lewis, E. (2015). The effect of dietary crude protein and phosphorus on grass-fed dairy cow production, nutrient status, and milk heat stability. Journal of Dairy Science, 98: 517-531 (Impact Factor – 2.55)

Serving the needs of the farming industry and its stakeholders

The NMR Programme operates in close cooperation with DAERA advisors and technologists, and is strongly focused on the needs of the farming industry and government policy departments - who hold it in high esteem. The following are recent examples of how NMR has served the needs of the farming industry and its stakeholders (including policy makers).

In the latest review of the NI Nitrates Action Programme (NAP 2014), based on our research, the European Commission approved changes to Schedule 2 of the Phosphorus Regulations (Northern Ireland) to include increased P recommendations for grassland at P index 2 minus, and revised manure P availabilities. These changes were needed to allow sufficient manure and fertilizer P to be applied to meet crop requirements on low P soils, and to encourage the redistribution of manure-P away from high P areas onto P-impoverished farmland.

DAERA has been provided robust scientific evidence to defend current N application limits on grassland in the new (2015) NAP Regulations and to prevent any reductions being imposed in line with the Nitrate Regulations England (2013), which would be damaging to grass-based livestock production in NI - and environmentally counterproductive.
Extensive monitoring of grassland swards identified S deficiency as a threat to grass production in spring, and not summer as had previously been assumed. Farmers are now advised to routinely apply S-containing fertilisers in spring, since the additional cost of S is far outweighed by the loss (>25%) in grass production if the deficiency is not corrected.