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Money and Muck

A fair few years back now, late one evening a couple of lads who helped us with silaging decided to drop into the pub for a drink after they’d finished. They were just in time to catch ‘last orders’ at a local pub. One lad, Brian, went to the bar to buy two pints. Now picture the scene, he’s scruffy, his jeans will be stained with grass and oil, and when you’re buckraking grass on a tractor with no cab you can end up covered with dust and pollen. He puts his hand into his pocket and pulls out a handful of coins to pay for the drinks. You can tell how long ago it was because you could buy two pints with loose change. He puts the money on the bar to sort through it and then looks with horror at the pile of coin, grass seeds and miscellaneous muck he’s unthinkingly deposited.

As he stammers his apology, the landlady methodically sorts through the pile, takes the money she’s owed and smiled at him. “Nothing to apologise for, lad, you’ve worked for your money, not like some of the idle beggars here.” With that she apparently glared around the bar at some of the others.

There again most of us in farming are used to muck. We have spent our lives recycling all sorts of waste, in fact it’s no longer waste, it’s a vital input. Take something as simple as straw. In human terms it’s the stick that keeps the bit of the cereal plant we eat out of the muck. But in farming terms it can be so useful. When used to bed livestock, it not only keeps them clean and comfortable, but when it’s suitably soiled it can be spread on farmland as fertiliser.

But even straw has had its trials and tribulations. A lot of things are price sensitive. Yes the straw has value as bedding, but there’s a limit to what the livestock farmer can afford, and some of that has to go to the haulier to cover the cost of moving it. So the price the arable farmer sees is lower. Some of them did their calculations and worked out that they were better off burning it on the field.

Now stop and think about this from an environmental point of view. The burning cleared away a lot of plant diseases and weeds. Some claimed that following crops needed fewer sprays and similar. Yes it did release CO2 into the atmosphere, but it’s the CO2 that it absorbed this year, and it’s the CO2 it will absorb again next year. Also you saved a lot of tractor work, baling, carting and hauling the stuff. So some environmentalists were quite positive about straw burning in the field. It was banned largely because the smoke could drift across roads.
This is important, people hurtling along roads, burning fossil carbon and destroying the environment, obviously needed prioritising at the expense of farming techniques that were helping the environment.

Since then straw has been ‘discovered’ as a biofuel. Admittedly before this some farms had ‘biomass boilers’ which could be fed, one round bale at a time, by a tractor. But with subsidies and brownie points, companies started building power stations to burn straw. In point of fact, from the power station point of view, it’s not an ideal fuel. Firstly the size of the crop can vary depending on whether it’s a wet year or not. Not only that it’s not ‘consistent.’ The straw from this field will be damper than the straw from that field, and those three bales taken from around the dike back are distinctly iffy. Then somebody had the bright idea of burning straw when it had been turned into pellets. It’s so much easier to handle and so much more consistent. But other bright sparks have pointed out that by the time you’ve hauled your straw, dried it and pelleted it and then hauled it again, how damned green is it?
Also people have come up with other uses, you can get ‘straw board’ and people use it as a building material.


But this year a lot of things came together and the price of straw got ridiculous. A big square bale of straw was costing around £100. At that price it’s damned near cheaper to bed calves on silk sheets and pay for the laundry!
In this area, because we’d had not a bad summer people were bedding young cattle on hay! People had a fair amount of it and calves have always nibbled their bedding so it did two jobs at once. I confess it wasn’t something I ever expected to see done.
Not only that but I know people who are now building a few acres of hay into their plans for this year, mainly to save the cost of straw for bedding next winter.

But I would wonder about the value of burning straw for ‘green energy.’ Building with straw, making straw board, they’re fine. When you think about it, you’re sequestrating carbon. With burning it, you’re putting the carbon back into the atmosphere for it to be reabsorbed next year. So it’s almost as good as burning it in the field but without the advantages of killing weeds and similar. But if the straw was used as livestock bedding and spread on the land, then you’d be adding carbon to the soil and you’re looking once more at long term sequestration. Especially under grassland.
So perhaps we ought to rethink our priorities for straw. Building materials, they’re fine, you’re locking the carbon up for a long time. Livestock bedding, again, it helps lock carbon in the land. Burning the damned stuff? Fine on the field where you get the advantage of controlling diseases and weeds, but in power stations? Perhaps if there’s some left that we don’t have any other jobs for?

But thinking environmentally, I was reminded of somebody whose sheep, some years ago, were prone to grazing the broad grass verges of our main road. They were such a common sight that when my daughter came home and I collected her from the station, she merely commented, “It’s nice to know some things don’t change. I see he’s still got his ewes hefted to the road verge.”

Indeed ewes will heft, even if they’re not fell sheep. It’s just that fell sheep are bred for it. I remember being told of one chap whose ewes had hefted themselves to one particular Lake District village. Apparently one particular ewe lambed every year in the corner of one particular garden.

But still, it strikes me that this is an idea with potential. In Cumbria we’re used to road signs extoling us to drive carefully because there could be sheep (legitimately) on the road as it crosses a fell.

Look at the huge motorway verges we have in this country and the amount of money spent keeping them tidy. The obvious solution is to heft sheep to the verges. Not only would they keep the grass down and save a lot of cost and wasted energy, but by giving the sheep right of way on the motorway, you’d slow traffic speeds, and would make sure that people took seriously the question, ‘Is your journey really necessary.’  Surely a win-win for the environment?


There again, what do I know? Talk to a real expert.

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As a reviewer commented, “Dipping in and out of this book, as ever with Jim Webster’s farming anecdotes, is a great way to relax – although thought provoking at times, despairing at others, the humour is ever present, and how welcome is that in these times?”