The smell of manure lies heavily over the countryside this week in mid-February, and there was muck all over the road this morning as I drove by Fred Sayle’s farm near Plaistow (“Plaster”) Green at the top of Crich. With the coming of spring, farmers are cleaning out their barns and cowsheds and getting all that good nitrogen onto the fields before it’s time to get them ploughed and sown.
At the farm, there’s always enough muck to go around. Frank usually has about 80 bullock calves, but with his wife Nora’s death three years ago he’s cut back and now has about fifty. The younger bullocks he keeps in the barn, in sheds near the farmhouse, or in a large shed two fields up the lane; the older bullocks are in the fields at the top of the land.
My uncle Frank and before him, my grandfather, his father, used to milk about 40 cows at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., but Frank gave it up when the European Union designated the French farmers as doing the milking, and the British farmers as raising beef. Ten years ago he spoke of going back to milking, but there’s now a tariff that British farmers who want to milk must pay, so he’s sticking with raising beef cattle. Either way, there’s not much money to be made either by milking or raising beef cattle; the big chains such as Tesco, Somerfield’s, and Asda have created monopolies, and any profit to be had goes to them, not the farmers. My cousin Alison, who farms with her husband in Ontario, Canada, told me that a year or so ago they almost went under because they were only making a penny per pound of meat that they sold, due to the high cost of cattle feed and the absurdly low price paid by the meatpackers. In Frank’s case, he can’t be making any or much money, but he really loves his calves so that’s what he does.
Frank as a boy feeding a lamb; his brother Joe, my dad, is behind him.
I’ve actually spent some time around muck, and I have to say that as long as I have my wellington boots on it doesn’t bother me at all, though some people get nauseous with the smell. When I was a child and teenager, during the three months I was here every summer I used to help my grandfather muck out the sheds and/or barnyard after the morning milking. I would stand in piles of seeping muck while helping him feed young calves with buckets, and sometimes I’d fork a load of muck into a wheelbarrow for him to put in the trench when he’s planting peas. But although I’ve often seen farmers muckspreading in the fields because it’s done much of the year in this temperate English climate, I’ve never actually ridden on a tractor perched a foot away from the stuff, as I did today.
The muck-spreader itself is a long, cylindrical piece of metal. It is filled with manure either by forking it by hand from the cowsheds, or through the use of a little machine small enough to fit through doorways to transport the muck from the sheds to the muck spreader. Once the muck-spreader is filled, the muck is flung onto the fields by short metal chains attached to a rotating cylinder, as seen here:
When the chains get going, they can fling the muck quite some distances. You do not want to be anywhere near them at this time!
I’m including this photo because I think it’s really cool the way that the trees are reflected on the cab of the tractor.
Muck-spreading–no doubt the dirtiest job on the farm, but good for the fields and the crops.