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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Langley

From Farm to Table: It All Starts with Manure

In his book Till the Cows Come Home Phillip Walling tells the story of the relationship between humankind and cattle and is a must read for anyone wanting to know anything more detailed than my own general observations acquired in my role as guardian of the blissful rural retreat, Newbrook House. I am fascinated by the simplicity of the cycle in which cows eat food that has been grown using their own excrement. I am not an expert and honestly don’t know the difference between manure, muck and slurry but I do know that they are all poo. One kind comes straight out of the cow’s rear end, the other is the composted product used as fertiliser and muck is somewhere in the middle. The first step is to collect the slurry from the fields where it is liberally scattered about, but I am still totally perplexed as to how this act of gathering or scooping is achieved. It’s one of those things that one just inherently knows if born into a farming community. I wasn’t and so don’t, and am way too embarrassed to ask. There must be some kind of industrial hoover contraption (a “poover”?) that farmers attach to their tractors to gather up the excrement in order to deposit it into large storage tanks where it sits composting itself into fertiliser. I have yet to see such a contraption but am keeping my eyes wide open.

Anyhow, it appears that in Ireland, 40 million tonnes of slurry are stored every year. That is quite an impressive amount of poo to gather and store. It sort of brings changing a baby diaper into perspective. So, however it happens, the muck goes into huge storage tanks where it sits fermenting, decaying and generally doing its own recycling gig. In order to be able to spread it over the fields as a natural (and somewhat pungent) fertiliser, water needs to be added to the thick gooey mess in a blending process known as ‘agitation’. And one would become agitated at the very thought, never mind the aroma, because, as it turns out, the very act of disturbing the nice crusty poo is that hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and methane are released. Yuck. Just a single whiff of these noxious and potentially lethal gasses can and has knocked many a farmer unconscious only to have the situation compounded by the fact that a farmer laying helpless will only further inhale the deadly mix. There is also the risk that, after a first whiff, a farmer becomes lightheaded and dizzy and falls into the slurry tank which does somewhat guarantee a tragic outcome. Ugh, it just doesn’t bear thinking about. As the gasses are odourless there is absolutely no way of warning of the impending hazard. Most farmers work on their own, so any exposure can seal their fate in seconds with no one around for miles to come to their aid.

When the agitation proceeds unencumbered by a visit from the grim reaper the manure is sucked from the underground storage tanks into a long cylinder along which several hoses are attached (if you are driving behind one of these contraptions it looks very like a giant spider) and the entire thing is pulled by a trusty and immensely versatile tractor. The tractor then wends its way up hill and down dale ‘spreading the slurry’. The resulting perfumed essence that wafts in and around the neighbourhood is indescribable but thankfully diluted by the breeze that wafts in from the nearby Wild Atlantic Way. The flies are temporarily ingited into a kamikaze-like frenzy and for a few days, until the slurry has settled, the melee of heightened activity amongst the insect population continues unabated. Thus, the secret of the secret sauce is not so secret as it makes its presence known for miles around but is indisputably the magic that makes the grass here to grow so long and so lush and so green. I use the term loosely as there are many types of grasses (timothy, brome, orchard grass, and fescue) and when making hay, the grass is often combined with a legume such as alfalfa or clover. The grass is cut at its highest peak which is the point of optimal nutritional value. It is then dried in the fields, and turned every now and again with yet another spider-like device attached to a tractor. When the grass is completely dry it is gathered up by a hay baler which forms it into perfect circular bales or rectangular blocks ready for stacking into barns to be used as winter food for the cattle. And so the fascinating cycle begins again. Aren’t the cycles of nature a true wonder?

And so, as my guests wander in and around the lanes of Newbrook, they discover Ireland by seeing for themselves these wonders of nature first hand and gain a greater understanding and appreciation of what is involved in getting food from farm to table. What an incredible process, involving such immense hard work and risk. Save for an improvement in machinery, little has changed over the centuries in the way that Irish farmers care for their land and their animals.

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