One has a supply of a rich source of nutrients readily available, and the other has an excess of straw following harvest each season
One has a supply of a rich source of nutrients readily available, and the other has an excess of straw following harvest each season, but do livestock and arable farmers really make the most of each other’s naturally-produced assets during the course of the farming calendar? Dominic Kilburn reports.BT’s old adage that “it’s good to talk” could be something for livestock and arable farmers to bear in mind more often in their never ending quest to secure on the one hand; straw for bedding, and, on the other, fertiliser for application to nutrient hungry soils.There is a certain amount of co-operation between livestock and arable farmers, believes Matrix Ag’s Mark Tripney, an agricultural adviser based in the North West, but he suggests there is an opportunity for both sets of producers to work closer together. “Any intensive livestock farm will have a surfeit of nutrient requirements from manures, particularly where phosphate levels are concerned, and it’s a problem for them in terms of what to do with it,” he says. “In addition, the cost of straw and the reliability of its supply has forced livestock producers to look at alternative options for bedding in recent seasons, but a more collaborative approach to arable farmers in their area could go a long way to helping out with both these issues,” points out Mark.Where arable farms are concerned, the benefits of receiving a fertiliser in the form of farm yard manure (FYM) or slurry, as part of an exchange deal for straw, stretch way beyond that of simply a cheaper source of nutrient supply for their soils. “Manures of course offer the potential to deliver certain levels of nutrients including nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potash (K), as well as trace elements, which would replace some use of conventional fertilisers and their associated cost, but it’s the soil that is the real winner,” he stresses. “The improvement in soil organic matter from manures is the big benefit; an increase in microbial life, more worms, better structure and buffering capacity can all be gained from the regular application of manure to arable land. Structural improvements and workability of the soil long-term are key to improving soil performance both in terms of nutrient holding capacity and structural integrity. “Higher organic matter soils ultimately hold on to the nutrients better and suffer less from compaction,” he adds.
Mark points out typical N, P and K values in cattle FYM are 6.0, 3.2 and 8.0kg/t respectively, compared with 2.6, 1.2 and 3.2kg/m3 in slurry (at 6 per cent dry matter), with the latter also providing more available nitrogen. He adds that there is strong evidence that some slurries offer 30-40 per cent nitrogen availability to crops when applied in the spring compared with only 5-15 per cent in the autumn. “Arable farmers won’t get all the nitrogen that they need from FYM, and there will always be the need for a conventional top up, however they can get enough P and K from it for a typical crop of wheat,” he says. “There is the addition of trace elements too in manures that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a normal fertiliser.”Taking today’s fertiliser prices Mark reckons that FYM is worth approximately 12.30/t (based on NPK values), which he considers is a cheap price to pay for the organic matter improvements it will bring soils on arable farms and, with a typical NVZ application of FYM being around 42t/ha (there is a field spreading limit of 250kg/ha of total organic N and maximum whole farm loading of 170kg N/ha), he says both sets of growers should start talking and look at what deals can be done in the area. “Most arable growers will be analysing and testing their soils for nutrient requirements each season, but if I was a livestock farmer I would be proactive in terms of analysing the manure I had on offer to put a value on its N, P and K status.”Pig muck exchange
One man who is in an ideal position to understand the benefits of co-operating with other farmers over muck and straw, is Suffolk pig and arable farmer Paul Hayward. Not only does his business, A Hayward & Son, have a requirement for 320-400ha (800-1,000 acres) of straw for bedding down 720 sows and progeny in outside tents, but it also liaises with other arable farmers in the region to supply them with muck in exchange.In addition, Paul farms 200ha (500 acres) of combinable crops from the village of Campsea Ashe in the east of the county where muck from his pigs has been spread for more than 20 years.As a consequence, he says that he hasn’t had to apply P and K to his soils during that time and, potentially of more importance, he is finding the soils are in a better condition. “What we are finding on the heavier land is that the soils are more workable where muck has been spread for several years, while, on the lighter land, soils are more moisture retentive.”The overall benefit includes the additional nitrogen and other nutrients but the fact that it improves the moisture retention in the lighter land gives muck, or ‘Black Gold’ as we call it, its real value,” he points out.Paul adds that when comparing crops grown on his muck-rich light land with other fields close by, it’s noticeable how his will ‘turn’ a week or two later in the season, adding yield potential, and he puts this down to increased moisture availability.With costs “going through the roof” two years ago for something that was previously “almost given away”, Paul has actively sought out other growers in the region who can provide a reliable supply of straw for his sows, in exchange for pig muck.”The cost of baling and carting straw all add up and with power stations also competing for supply, it has pushed prices up and made it that much harder to secure sufficient tonnage,” continues Paul.”As a basic calculation, we exchange about 3.5t of muck for 1t of straw, but, beforehand, we get it sampled and sent off for N, P and K analysis at a lab. Typical analysis is dry matter at 43 per cent, 8.43kg/t total N, 6.53kg/t P, 4.88kg/t K, 2.22kg/t Mg and 3.12kg/t SO3,” he says.”I can then print off the analysis and see what percentage of nitrogen is available in year 1 for example and that means it has a certain value to the arable farmer interested in taking it, and it puts a bit of science behind what we are offering. It gives you a good value in terms of nutrients but of course that doesn’t tell you the whole story about its long term value as a soil conditioner.”Paul says that, depending on the arrangement made, the muck is either picked up by the arable farmer or delivered by him (on an ‘at cost’ basis), and his furthest customer is 13 miles away.”We’ve even bought our own Agri-Hire muck spreader to loan it out free of charge to arable farmers who take our muck, and that means they don’t always have to wait for their muck to be spread during busy times when contractors are flat out. It’s all part of providing a good service and keeping the relationship going with mutual benefit,” he concludes.Dairy farm arrangement
Another livestock farmer who exports muck off his farm in Suffolk in return for straw is David Utting of Grove Farm, Mettingham in the Waveney Valley – the geographical dividing line between Suffolk and Norfolk.Any intensive livestock farm will have a surfeit of nutrient requirements from manures, particularly where phosphate levels are concerned, and it’s a problem for them in terms of what to do with it, says adviser, Mark Tripney.
In total he has about 700-head of cattle, of which 260 are loose-housed dairy cows and each season he requires between 480-600ha (1,200-1,500 acres) of straw. In addition, David farms 120ha (300 acres) of arable land with crops including sugar beet, fodder beet, maize and upland grass leys in a two-year rotation.
David says that he has a long-standing arrangement with a neighbouring arable farmer to supply him with muck each year in return for straw. “We typically provide him with 200 trailer loads of muck in a season, which we cart and spread for him. In return for one trailer of muck we get three acres of straw which we use for bedding,” he explains. “We had ADAS look at our arrangement and, while it depends on the price of fertiliser, it reckoned it was a good arrangement for all concerned,” comments David.He says the idea of arable and dairy farmers working together is becoming more popular and he knows of several other arable growers in the area who are interested in swapping straw for muck.”I think more arable farmers are beginning to realise that the levels of organic matter in their fields are depleted, and that FYM is a good way to go about replenishing soils.”Carting muck to, and spreading it on, his neighbour’s land, as well as bringing the straw home is time consuming, he concedes and, logistically, the arrangement doesn’t come without its problems. “It is more awkward these days; rules state that you can’t dump muck on NVZ land and store it there ready for spreading in the late summer. Now we have to think of somewhere to store it while we wait for the land to become available and when harvest is late, as it’s going to be this year, there’s very little time to get the muck on in the autumn before the farmer wants to drill the next crop.
“Our neighbour likes to get the muck on ahead of oilseed rape and he’ll drill it less than 24 hours after we have spread it and following incorporation with the plough.”Oilseed rape is a good crop to use on muck as it takes up the available nutrients quickly in the autumn, reducing the likelihood of leaching later in the season when it turns wet,” he adds.”Most of our own arable fields receive 10-12t/ha of FYM each season,” continues David, who says that he hasn’t had to apply compound fertilisers for many years. “Light land ahead of maize will have muck incorporated in the spring while on some of the heavier land, also destined for maize, we’ll incorporate it in the autumn before it gets too wet, although I am trying to get away from growing the crop on heavier land due to the compaction damage that can be caused when harvesting the crop late.”Arable grower
Arable farmer and manager Jes Hansen (left) has been accepting muck in return for straw with David Utting’s dairy unit for several years, applying FYM to land at Carlton House Farm, Mettingham, which is contract farmed on behalf of the Servaes family.
Up to 30t/ha of solid FYM is applied to fields every three years; 50 per cent ahead of oilseed rape and 50 per cent prior to second wheats, and all is applied in the autumn.Jes says that prior to taking over the farm the land had quite low indexes with low P and K availability, but after six or seven seasons of FYM application the soil has vastly improved in terms of P and K availability in addition to higher and more consistent yields.”David is very good at doing his job and he comes in as soon as he can after combining to bale all the straw and then takes it off the farm before coming back to apply the FYM. Usually it has been stored for three months beforehand and so it’s well-rotted and has never really caused us any problems,” he explains.”I suppose I am surprised that more farmers don’t have an arrangement with each other, but the whole relationship depends on the reliability of the guy supplying the muck,” points out Jes. “The pressure is all on him. There is such a short window for application of FYM between harvest and drilling, that if the dairy farmer isn’t on the ball, it simply won’t work.”Contractor
A straw and muck collaboration between arable and livestock farmers makes perfect sense for a number of reasons, says Suffolk-based agricultural contractor Derek Keeble (left). He says that from his perspective, as someone who specialises in baling and carting straw, in addition to spreading muck, once two farmers agree to supply each other then it’s a guarantee of more work for him and good use of his machinery. “Once the growers commit to each other then you know that it’s going to happen and you can plan ahead,” says Derek, whose business DE Keeble, based at Blaxhall near the Suffolk coast also specialises in covering carrots with straw for winter protection as well as hedge cutting and maintenance.”While there are less livestock farms in the region than in other parts of the country, the fact that most of them are intensive means that a reciprocal arrangement really does work. Further west, where you have more mixed farms, they have less need to move their muck off farm and bring straw in.”
Derek says that as the middle man who carts the straw to the livestock farms and spreads the muck on the arable land, he’s in a position to make a collaboration happen between two farmers, but without any financial complications. “The two farms make a deal between themselves in terms of the muck and straw which means that I don’t have to get involved in buying and selling it. All I have to do is deal with each farmer individually when either delivering the straw or spreading the muck, and it makes my job so much easier.” Derek says that because there is a lot of spring cropping in the area, notably sugar beet and potatoes, the majority of muck is spread ahead of planting in the spring. “That’s the most effective time to apply muck in terms of crop uptake of nutrients, rather than running the risk of leaching in the autumn, as well as having a decent window in which to get it on,” continues Derek. “There are a few growers who want it spread in the autumn ahead of oilseed rape which responds well to muck, but you have to wait for a wet period during wheat harvest in order to get it on; when the straw baling and combines have stopped, allowing us the time to spread the muck and for the farmer to cultivate it in.”With the same straw originally supplied to the livestock farmer returned to the same arable farm as FYM, any concerns about additional weed seed banks being imported to fields should also be disregarded, suggests Derek. “If the arable grower kept his fields reasonably clean in the first place there shouldn’t be any additional problems of that nature,” he says.”It’s a very transparent arrangement between all parties and it works well,” he adds. Diane Armitage is the NFU’s county adviser for Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Huntingdonshire, and while she admits that with fewer dairy and livestock farms in the East than in other regions of the country, it’s not always going to be possible for the two sets of producers to come together with an arrangement. “Certainly demand for muck outstrips supply in this region but any efficiency gains that can be made by working together should be encouraged,” she states.