The winters of my childhood were dominated by muck. 200 cows produce a lot of it and the dung pit always seemed to be spilling out into the yard, making shifting it a constant challenge. It might not sound idyllic but I enjoyed it, apart from the pig muck (that was just too stinky).
If you have ventured into the countryside recently, you might have noticed the smell (the muck is flying, the slurry gushing). With the soil dryer than it has been for 11 months, it is the ideal time for spreading manure. Some fling it, some dribble it, some inject it straight into the soil. The prevailing problem is that the stuff is produced from housed cattle in the winter, when the ground is normally too wet to spread it, and the dormant soil and crops cannot absorb it.
My innovative father would send it gushing down a trench, which followed the contour around the hill, to where his welly-clad children would create dams and breaches to allow it to trickle down the slope to feed the pasture. Later, with the arrival of better pumps, came the exploding bladder which slowly inflated with slurry, until every few minutes, unannounced, it would purge itself across the field. The smell was horrendous. The latest development in muck technology is the umbilical pipe: slurry is pumped from the yards down up to a mile of snaking pipe to a tractor fitted with low ground pressure tyres and a dribble bar. This zig-zags around the farm, spreading it evenly without the damage caused to the soil by huge tankers and spreaders – a massive improvement.
Cheap synthetic fertiliser can lead conventional farmers to view muck as something to get rid of, as cheaply as possible. Too much of it ended up polluting rivers, though farmers have cleaned up their act and this is now very rare. Organic farmers have always prized their muck. Recycling nutrients back into the soil, matching availability to crop root absorption with a minimum of loss to leaching or the atmosphere, is vital to our success. It’s a bit stinky sometimes, but we would be lost without it.