After a January that has been mercifully bright and dry, the soil is dry enough to carry machinery and our valley has been heavy with the odour of slurry as dairy farmers take the chance to lower their slurry stores. Ideally slurry is best spread in late February as grass wakes up and active roots are hungry for the soluble nutrients.
In my youth, with oil-based fertiliser so cheap and convenient and little focus on soil health or the environment, manure was a problem to be disposed of as cheaply as possible rather than an asset to be used wisely. On any dry winter’s day, my brothers and I donned oilskins and sat on 60 horsepower tractors with rotaspreaders to “get rid of the stuff ” in any field dry enough to get through the gate. The oilskins kept the worst of the muck off but it was a painfully slow and filthy job, and if rains followed inevitably some ended up in the nearby river Dart.
By contrast, the subsistence farmers I have visited in Uganda, whose training Riverford has supported through Send a Cow, value their livestock as much for the muck as the meat, milk and eggs; it is the basis of their compost making, improved soil fertility and subsequent climb out of poverty.
Today the favoured method of muck distribution is the ‘umbilical slurry system’, whereby a snaking nine-inch hose is connected to a pump at the farm and, at the other end up to 2km away, a tractor pulls the hose and dribbles slurry evenly onto the surface. It causes less damage to the soil, less stench and air pollution from volatilised ammonia and nitrous oxides and, because it is 100 times faster, means there is a better chance of getting the job done in favourable conditions.
Much as I lament the relentless drive to scale in farming, this is unquestionably a huge improvement on being drenched in cow excrement as a teenager.
If carbon was taxed at something like its environmental cost, fertiliser would be much more expensive, we would value muck more, use less oil-based fertiliser and cause less pollution; in fact, in many ways, we would farm more like a Ugandan subsistence farmer, but hopefully with the benefit of some machinery.