Tag Archives: BSE

What sort of rubbish are we supposed to feed livestock now?

There is a lot of discussion about food waste. I came across an article with the snappy title, “The UK wastes millions of tonnes of food every year: here’s how we can change that.” If you’re interested it’s at https://theconversation.com/the-uk-wastes-millions-of-tonnes-of-food-every-year-heres-how-we-can-change-that-162783

The article makes some useful points, “In the case of pig farmers in the UK, this system is causing an industry-wide crisis. UK pig farms are governed by the highest regulatory standards in the world, to ensure the best health and welfare for the animals.

But if consumers keep demanding cheaper and cheaper meat, it could make UK pig production economically unsustainable, driving farmers out of business. If that happens, the UK would inevitably see an increase in imported pig meat which doesn’t comply with national standards – actively promoting poorer farming practices. For example, when reared in environments with a greater number of pigs per pen than UK standards, animals have lower access to food and water and lack stimulation, causing a much lower quality of life.”

The authors are absolutely right, we’ve watched the process happen when we introduced sow stalls and the EU didn’t. We merely exported our pig industry and consumers who could care less about pig welfare (but only by making an effort) just bought the stuff produced in the sow stalls they were supposed to be horrified about.

The answer to the problem is an old one. The authors recommend feeding food waste to pigs?
This is something that has been done for centuries but there is a major problem. Disease. In the UK and EU swill feeding Swill was banned in 2002 after the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) epidemic. There was a ‘strong suspicion’ that it was caused by illegally feeding untreated swill to pigs. The problem with swill is that the largest suppliers were the NHS and the armed forces. Both organisations were notorious at the time for the amount of cheap, poor quality food they bought from all round the world. If the swill had been cooked to a high enough temperature it would probably be safe. But by 2001 margins were so thin that it was impossible to economically survive if you were doing the job properly.

There again, countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand are promoting swill feeding, whilst the EU is moving back to feeding processed animal protein to pigs and poultry. We’ve walked that road before.

These ideas seem to move in cycles. The feeding of meat and bone meal to cattle started about the time of the American Civil war. During the First World War, it was actually compulsory for livestock feed companies to include it in livestock rations. During the Second World War it was again compulsory. I had nutritional advice leaflets issued by the Ministry of Agriculture which recommended it as an excellent feed for lactating dairy cows. Indeed I remember one feed rep coming onto the farm trying to interest my Father and me in a new calf milk powder. They were calling it chocolac. (Or something very similar.) Just out of interest I queried the ‘chocolate’ aspect.

“Oh no,” said the rep, “there’s no chocolate in it. It’s got added pigs blood. That’s what gives it the colour.”
Father and I just looked at each other and without a word spoken decided to give it a miss. Those who followed the science, used it.

Then not all that long after that, BSE and nvCJD exploded on the scene.

The problem is that Farming is fought over by so many different organisations, lobby groups and political factions, none of whom see anything like a big picture. So we’ll have environmental groups who want large chunks rewilding. I saw one bunch lobbying to have the Crown Estate rewilded. Some of the finest farmland in England but hey, obviously they’re not intending to eat. Or perhaps they don’t intend other people to eat.
Then we get the genuine pressure of people who want food to be cheap. We have people in the UK whose sole cooking facility is a kettle. I talked in a foodbank to a young man who had been ‘rehoused’. He’d been sleeping on the street because of circumstances and the council got him a flat. He went from sleeping on the pavement to sleeping on the floor of his flat. A couple of charities helped him furnish it, but there wasn’t the money for a cooker. Anyway he’d been in care and hadn’t a clue about cooking or food preparation. He couldn’t have used a cooker if he’d been given one. He was hoping for a microwave soon, but as his life savings amounted to about thirty seven pence, it wasn’t going to be a flash one.

Then we get those who are big into recycling and worry about getting to carbon zero. They have an agenda which doesn’t fit in too well with any of the others. So back in the 1970s our A level biology master got us all a cheap subscription to New Scientist and effectively taught us biology from that. But one short article has stuck with me. Researchers had noticed something the rest of us forget. Ruminants cannot digest cellulose. Ruminants aren’t really herbivores. In real terms they feed grass to bacteria and bacteria can digest cellulose. Ruminants then live on the bacteria.

So these researchers pointed out, in reality, it’s a waste of time giving ruminants too much decent quality protein. Yes, some of it gets past the rumen (there’s a lot of work done on ‘rumen bypass protein’) and the cow then digests it herself, rather than leaving it to be gobbled up by the bacteria. But feeding high quality protein to bacteria is just a waste. They can take urea and turn it into protein. They’re not fussy. They’re just amazingly efficient.
Obviously the researchers pointed out that ruminants are a good source of urea as well. But funnily enough they’re not keen on taking it direct. A lot of work was done. I remember reading an article in one of the farming magazines back then. A chap had mixed hen muck, (which is very rich in nitrogen and therefore a brilliant source of protein for bacteria) with (from memory) pressed sugar beet pulp. This is the stuff left when you get the sugar out of sugar beet, it’s pressed to squeeze out the extra water. He mixed equal parts of the two ingredients with a little rolled barley as a starter. He mixed it by shovelling it into a muckspreader which he emptied into an empty silage clamp. When the clamp was full, he covered it with a plastic sheet to keep the air out. It produced an excellent feed that fattened bullocks over winter.

This is excellent news, environmentally. Actually using human waste is theoretically safer, less chance of listeria. Alas humans massively contaminate their wastes with all sorts of disgusting chemicals, so it’s barely fit to spread on farmland as fertiliser. Perhaps if they spent less time pontificating about how green they were and spent more time making sure the muck they produce was properly looked after, we’d all have a smaller environmental footprint.



There again, what do I know?
Available from Amazon in paperback or on kindle

And available from everybody else at


As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s recollections, reflections and comments, about life as a Farmer, are always worth reading, not only for information, but also for entertainment and shrewd comments about UK government agencies (and politicians).
One of the many observations that demonstrate his wryness, is as follows:
There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!”

So what exactly is your industry’s relationship with government?

The problem with being rural is that government and a major part of the population aren’t rural and in some cases haven’t got a clue what is going on. To put this in perspective somebody mentioned to me four issues those in authority hold against rural dwellers. They feel that these things are standing in the way of us reaching net zero. We are, ‘car dependent, have low density housing and are hooked on oil burning, and then there is intensive agriculture.’ To be fair it isn’t merely government, the entire political class and a lot of quangos and pressure groups are trapped in the same mindset.

Let us go through these.

Car dependent.

In a paper by the Rural Services Network we read, “Local authorities in rural areas have far less funding available to support bus services. In 2017/18 such expenditure in predominantly rural areas was £6.72 per resident, compared with £31.93 in predominantly urban areas. Expenditure to cover concessionary bus fares was £13.48 (rural) and £25.54 (urban).

And then they complain that we’re ‘car dependent.’

Low density housing

Just who is in charge of planning law and regulation? Without being nasty about it, if governments have planning laws and planning policies, they can hardly then complain about the results of them.

Oil Burning.

Well here we run smack bang into the problem with an entirely urban mindset. Back in August 1983 a paper was produced, “Winter rape oil fuel for diesel engines: Recovery and utilization.” In 2002 there were farmers in the UK growing oil seed rape for bio-diesel. By which I mean they were crushing the seed themselves and running their tractors on the result.

But of course diesel went from our saviour under Gordon Brown to the fifth horseman of the apocalypse in about 2017 because of particulates. A major problem in a built up area, but not in the middle of the countryside.”

At the moment there are no full sized electric tractors, just big ‘garden tractors’ that are apparently suitable for vineyards. Apparently (but I’m not a tractor expert, I’m a cowman) they’re 30% more expensive than conventional. So from a farmer’s point of view it’s a case of us being expected to retool with more expensive equipment that doesn’t work as well, purely to solve a problem that isn’t a problem. Indeed the energy wasted trading in an awful lot of tractors that could have a generation or more life in them using rape oil doesn’t make sense.

Intensive agriculture.

Guilty as charged on that one. Indeed if we massively cut food production we’d very rapidly solve the problem of CO2 emissions as there would be a lot fewer people to emit the CO2.

Unless government are going to ration the number of calories are allowed, then people are going to eat the same. So cutting intensive agriculture in the UK will merely result in even more food being hauled, often as air freight, from all round the world. The amount of CO2 produced by food production won’t fall. Unless the countries we buy food off want their own people to go hungry, they will have to intensify their agriculture prior to flying the stuff to us.

Another problem we have when trying to cope with changing farming to meet a new world is the way various single issue pressure groups selectively fiddle the figures. To quote

“Peer reviewed research published in Agricultural Systems using the Life Cycle Assessment model to quantify the environmental impacts of Australian beef production found a 65 percent reduction in consumptive water use, from 1465 litres/kg of liveweight to 515 litres/kg of liveweight over the last 30 years, from 1981-2010.

Previous media articles have reported claims that it takes between 50,000 and 100,000 litres to produce a kilogram of red meat. But these reported measures count every single drop of water that falls on an area of land grazed by cattle over the space of a year. And they do not take into account the fact that most of the water ends up in waterways, is used by trees and plants and in pastures, not grazed by cattle. “These calculations therefore attribute all rain that falls on a property to beef production, whereby the water is clearly being used for other purposes, such as supporting ecosystems”.

So there you have it, depending on which piece of ‘data’ fits best with your preconceptions you can declaim with confidence that it takes up to 100,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of red meat. You can then declaim with equal confidence that it takes as little as 515 litres of water to produce a kilogram of red meat.

And then there’s the rumbling arguments about Brexit still going on. Apparently out of the 70 something trade deals we were part of with the EU, we’ve already rolled 66 of them over so we still get all the advantages (and disadvantages) which come with any trade deal.

But a lot has been made of the Australian deal and how much it will mean for UK farmers. Not only that, but the Australians (like most of the world) use hormone growth promoters.
Yet also on the horizon is the fact that the EU has decided that “there was no health risk from allowing PAP (processed animal protein) from pigs and insects to be fed to poultry, the feeding of pigs with chicken PAP, or the use of gelatine and collagen from sheep and cattle being fed to other farmed animals.”

So that’s what is going to happen and will start in August.

The question has to be asked, given the whole BSE thing, is the UK government going to ban the import of EU pig and poultry products on the grounds that they do not meet UK food and hygiene standards?


Me, what do I know?

Speak to somebody who might have more idea. Available from Amazon as paperback and ebook

And from everybody else you can get it here


As a reviewer commented, “A collection of anecdotes and observations about farming in England in the 21st century. Written by an actual farmer, this book is based on real experience and touches on a variety of subjects in a witty and engaging style. Cats, cattle, bureaucrats, workers, and the working dog all make an appearance, as do reminiscences about the old days and speculation on a possible future. This book is both entertaining and informative, a perfect diversion for the busy reader.”

My beef with experts


People tell us that we’re wrong to disbelieve the experts. After all they’re the ones who know stuff so we should listen to them. The problem comes when you get older. Experts are best if they’re like historians who look back and pontificate on the past. That works. Yes you can argue with other historians, but you’re only arguing over the interpretation of the information. You’re not making the dangerous mistake of using your expert interpretation of the data to predict the future.

Once you predict the future you run into problems. Reality is perfectly happy to run your predictions and in ten or twenty years you can see how right or wrong you were.

So looking back, let’s look at BSE which came close to destroying the UK beef industry and compared to which, Brexit is a trivial irrelevance. Eventually they found that a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy could move from one species to another. Now remember that when all this kicked off TSE’s were a field of medicine/biology where careers went to die. I’m not knocking the people working on these things in the 1980s, but frankly however good the work they did, they were never going to capture the limelight.

Then suddenly the world changed. With the arrival of BSE money flooded into the field and all eyes were on it. To be fair to the researchers they just kept researching, and generally did what researchers do, which is kick ideas about, try and check things, and do their damnedest to get funding for the next couple of years.

And of course the experts really went to town on things. Prof Liam Donaldson, who was the Chief Medical Officer told BBC radio, “Hundreds of thousands of British meat-eaters might eventually die from the human form of mad cow disease, but the scale of the epidemic will not be known for years. Even as late as 2000, the Guardian was producing articles saying that, “Latest estimates range from a few hundred to just over 130,000.”

Twenty years on, I’d like to refer you to https://www.cjd.ed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/figs.pdf


It’s a pdf which has the figures for deaths from CJD. There are four types, Sporadic, Iatrogenic, Genetic and vCJD. The first three are natural in that humanity has always had them. vCJD is probably the one that comes from Cattle. In spite of the experts, in the last five years there has been 1 case.

To put things in proportion, since they bothered keeping figures (which was 1990) there have been 2068 cases of sporadic CJD. There have been 82 cases of Iatrogenic CJD, 209 cases of Genetic CJD, and 178 cases of vCJD.
So in spite of the experts we haven’t even had a ‘few hundred’ never mind the hundreds of thousands.

To further put this in proportion, the suicide rate among farmers runs at about one a week. In any year, fifty or so kill themselves. In the same period as we have for the CJD cases, 1450 farmers or thereabouts will have committed suicide. I personally know of three who killed themselves during the hysteria of the BSE outbreak because they just couldn’t cope to what it was doing to their homes and their families.
But even during the BSE outbreak, it was soon evident that people were beginning to get sick of the experts and were ignoring them. The final nail in the coffin of expert infallibility came with the ‘beef on the bone ban.’
The government banned the sale of beef on the bone in December 1997. Two years later in 1999 they lifted the ban, probably because people just had no faith in it. One butcher I know told me that before the ban he’d rarely sell beef on the bone. He’d do a couple of joints a year for people who were intending to do roast beef for ten or a dozen guests. When the government introduced the ban, everybody was asking for it! The ban, whilst it inadvertently did a lot to increase the sales of beef, was effectively swept away by popular ridicule of a silly overreaction.

So experts? The passing of time is the graveyard of expert opinions.


Me, if I want to speak to an expert I used to ask this lady



As a reviewer commented, “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”