Like many who find themselves socially isolating in the days of coronavirus, I have been busy in the vegetable garden. The difficulties of shopping, coinciding with the start of spring proper, have reminded many of the importance of a good vegetable patch. This may become even more important in the financial collapse and recession we are likely to meet after the plague has settled.
I had been planting and sowing and found that I needed labels to identify what I had put where. Without labels I would never know what had failed to grow in each bare patch of earth. Normally these labels are scattered about the greenhouse and garden scribbled with hopeful names which only occasionally become useful. But now that I needed some there was not one to be found. I could not go into town to buy new tags, as in nobody’s view could this be seen as essential travel. I needed to improvise.
Fortunately we buy a number of sheep licks each year. These come in large tubs with colourful plastic lids. These are often pressed into service as frisbees for the dogs but I realised that they could also help in my predicament. Five minutes work with some scissors and we have wipe clean colour coded plant tags and less plastic that will need to be dealt with as waste.
In miserable times, such as these, simple successes like this do tend to raise the spirits slightly.
Unfortunately this blog needs the reader to understand the basics agricultural science and animal husbandry. I will try and simply these as best I can and I hope that what follows is not too dry nor technical. I am sure that any reader of average intelligence will be able to grasp the fundamental principles with only a modicum of effort. Let us start with the basics – the animal. Figure 1 is a schematic of a basic farm animal and, as we will show later, is a satisfactory diagram for all livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs and even poultry or exotic species such as llamas or alpacas.
As you will see from Figure 1 there are two ends to your animal : the front (or pointy) end and the back (or round) end. One of the first tasks in farming is to be able to tell these ends apart. The front end the the usual end that leads when the animal is moving and the end it will present to you when it wants to be fed, or wishes to injure you. For this reason, the pointy end often comes complete with jaggy horns or sharp teeth. While the front, or pointy, end is the prettier end it is also usually the more dangerous.
The round back end is the end that follows when the animal is moving. This is the end you will see when you are trying to capture your animal. Something you will learn quickly, when you have animals, is that all your animals are faster than you when you want to catch them. You will spend a lot of your time looking at the rear ends of your animals as it disappears into the distance. A primary reason for knowing the ‘ends’ of your animals is that it helps understand the throughput of the animal. The front end, to use the modern computer jargon, is the input end while the back, or round, end is where all the output arises.
The rear end has multiple outputs. At the bottom , on some species, there are dangly bits; these, with a bit of manipulation, give production of milk and subsequent dairy products. Above this is the first of two openings. This one, if all your stockmanship has gone well, will give rise to meat production by giving new small versions of the animal. Above this is the most prolific output opening. This is the source of animal excrement something the budding farmer has to become familiar with very quickly as they will spend a large part of their time covered in this.
It is a mistake to call this last product animal waste. It is only waste if you waste it. The entire agricultural revolution that allowed humankind to start to grow and colonise the world was based on animal excrement. Humans discovered that by rotating crops, interspersing harvests with periods leaving the ground fallow, and using animals to manure the fields they could make land much more productive and stop the loss of nutrients from the soil that otherwise would follow on taking the crops as produce. This allowed a sustainable cycle to be developed. The soil gave nourishment to the plants, the animals and we ate the plants, and then we and the animals nourished the soil. Ultimately by being buried in it when we died.
This revolution allowed us to expand as a species and provided the energy and population growth which permitted the next great revolution : the Industrial revolution. In this there was the formation of large towns and cities and a growing disconnection between town and country. This broke the cycle that had been established. Now nourishment was taken from the land and moved to the towns for consumption. In the urban areas the excrement was not returned to the countryside and the nourishment was not returned to the land. There had been systems where ‘nightsoil’ was collected and returned to be used as manure but after the link between cholera and human excrement became known this fell from favour. The problem became much worse with the development of flushing toilets and sewers which meant the excrement was sent out to sea where sometimes it us harmful rather than contributing to a growing cycle.
Even Karl Marx was aware of this problem and he wrote :-
“Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum, and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population, crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.“
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1894
For a while this breach in the cycle was filled by importing large amounts of guano (bird poo) from across the other side of the world until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch Process which allowed the production of chemical fertilisers. All modern agriculture now uses this method of chemical enrichment of the soil to try and compensate for the loss of sustainable and natural ways for farming. However, there are serious concerns that this method of working is not sustainable and we are ignoring potential irreparable damage to our soils.
Indeed, rather than dealing with this threat we are increasing its risk. Our growing use of monoculture crops and the practice of feedlot farming (where animals are penned and fed concentrated feedstuffs, usually cereals, to rapidly fatten them) further break the sustainable cycles we know we need. Even with regard to waste we have not learnt much. We have, on rather faulty logic, essentially ended the recycling of food waste by feeding swill to animals (usually pigs). Now this food waste which could have, after going through the guts of a pig, given manure for the land and food for the people (and hence reduced the need for production) instead finds its way into landfill. At best it finds its way into anaerobic digestion plants to create biofuels which is a very inefficient way of dealing with it. This is only considered because the food waste is considered ‘waste‘, were it considered a resource it would not be undervalued like this.
So, in conclusion, the round end, although it is often the smelly and dirty end of your animal, is possibly the most important part of the beast and what comes out of it should be treasured and not squandered. There are good reasons to think that this also applies to our own round ends and we should seriously think how we start using the one thing all of us manage to effortlessly produce.
If this sparks an interest the book Humanure may be well worth reading.
Over the last few days I started to get ready to be able to take a crop of hay. The last time we did this we had major problems – when we were on the last small field the power scythe blade appeared to jam and stop working. We tried, with limited success, to get the remainder of the field by hand but this really didn’t work and I needed the power scythe working before the end of the month. The grass has been growing well and looks like a fair crop, we have to be ready should there be a dry sunny period long enough to do the work.
The power scythe is an implement which attaches to the front of our two wheeled Goldoni tractor. It is quite expensive so buying a new one is not a prospect I wanted to consider. The companies who sell these machines are keen to sell the kit but, I discovered, much less keen to get involved in repairs so it was down to me to get it working again. I had the instruction manual so what could go wrong ?
Firstly, the manual itself could throw an obstacle in my path. These machines are made in Italy (the small farms and olive groves make two-wheeled tractors popular there) and the manuals likewise. Thus my manual was written in Italian which made the first step an attempt to decode the booklet. It had few diagrams or schematics to ensure that there were no unnecessary visual clues.
Over two days I, with the help of a neighbour, stripped the machine down to all its constituent parts. We inspected and cleaned every piece and then reassembled the machine checking all the settings with feeler gauges to the millimeter. With new grease and oil the machine moved smoothly with no jamming or hesitation. We hooked it up to the tractor and proudly set forth into the field for a celebratory and confirmatory cut of some long grass. It cut smoothly and effortlessly through the sward for about a yard then jerked and the sickle blade seemed to seize. No further cutting was possible. No amount of rocking, shaking, cajoling or threatening, coaxed even an inch of movement from the machine’s teeth.
Back in the barn we disassembled the blade to see where we had gone wrong. This is not a fun job. The piece weighs about 80kg, is oily and slippery and has two rows of menacingly sharp iron teeth. I have seem those teeth slice effortlessly slice though the legs of an iron park bench – it is no fun to handle! After having looked everywhere there was no sign of any jam. No sign of anything that could block the transit of the blades. The problem had to lie in the connection between the power unit and the appliance but we had checked this twice. In additon we had checked with two other appliances to be doubly sure that the transmission linkage worked properly.
While we had the machine upside down we noticed a small hole and wondered what is that for. Peering in we could see nothing of note, just black think molybdenum grease. Five minutes later, after poking our fingers down the shaft and pulling out all the grease we could, we were able to see a small circlip around the drive shaft. As we rotated the drive shaft we saw that this was held in place by a small set screw – a small grub screwabout 3mm across with a hexagonal allan key head. We checked and this grub screw was loose so we tightened it up.
We realized that when slack this grub screw would not stop the driving spline from being pushed back just far enough to allow the connection between the power unit and the scythe to be lost – the two connecting faces would no longer be sufficiently close to carry the power down to the blade and instead they would just bump over each other. After tightening up the screw we powered up and returned to the field where the unit ran perfectly. We cut grass, tried on an area of brambles, and pushed over rocky ground and through dense scrub – it didn’t waver. It just ploughed on cutting as it went, it was well and truly fixed.
This episode taught me a two lessons. Firstly, be careful no to jump to conclusions. Had we spent more time at the beginning thinking about the problem we might have realized the problem lay further back in the chain from power unit to cutting blade. We might have saved ourselves a lot of work. However, I am glad I have dismantled and serviced the machine, it needed it anyway, and I feel much better knowing exactly how it is made and how it works. Even when we did realize the problem was to do with the power take off it would have taken us a while to find this small screw that appears no where in the manual.
The second lesson is perhaps more important. I often wonder if there is any point in trying to be green in my daily life as I try to reuse and recycle. I wonder if my attempts to reduce my consumption make any great difference. What does my level of consumption matter in the greater scale of things. On a wider basis I wonder if it makes any point that I, as a fairly insignificant and powerless individual, try to do my bit for a better society – can one person make a difference ?
This little grub screw was only about 0.0001% of the metal parts of the mowing machinery; of the parts it clearly was the “least of these“. Hidden down a shaft in the bowels of the machine, in the dark, covered in oil and grease this little screw had slackened off, stopped doing its job, and the whole hay making project shuddered to a halt. In the interconnected system it lived within it was as valuable as any other. And so it is with all of us. We might often feel small and powerless in comparison to our rulers, or the celebrities we see daily, but we all play our part and it may be our part which proves to be the vital step in how things change.