Thursday, May 26, 2011

Manuring (Fertilizing) Practices in the United Kingdom 200 Years Ago

"The State of Husbandry in the County of Norfolk in the Kingdom of Great Britain . . ."

Almost 200 years ago, in the year of 1813, a presentation on the "state of husbandry" in the County of Norfolk in the kingdom of Britain was published by the Board of Agriculture -- the detailed research contained in the report commenced well over 200 years ago under the direction of Arthur Young. Norfolk was considered a very progressive agricultural County in the kingdom of Britain.

This painting is circa 1830 in Wales, and you can see what is most likely a true Welsh White cow on the river bank.   My thanks to Norman Morgan for bringing it to my attention.  Source:

There are countless interesting descriptions of a variety of farming practices in this presentation; but, it is Norfolk's 'manuring' of turnip fields, and barley and wheat fields that are explored here. Today, when we hear the term 'manuring' we automatically think of the excrement or dung of any of a variety of farm livestock, but most likely most having not actually heard the term 'manuring'. But 200 years ago, 'manuring' actually referred to any addition to the soil that served as a fertilizer; in fact, 'manuring' would be synonymous with 'fertilizing' today.

The correct method and substance to use for the most effective manuring of crops was hotly debated among farmers. As well, the geographic location of the individual parishes greatly influenced the traditional materials used for manuring. The cost of the various manures was of paramount importance in old Norfolk, as it certainly is today in England and the United States.

In regard to manuring, Mr. Young tells us: "This is the most important branch of the Norfolk improvements, and that which has had the happy effect of converting many warrens and sheep walks into some of the finest corn districts in the kingdom."  The various manuring substances made use of in the County of Norfolk included: Marle, Lime, Ashes, Soot, Gypsum, Malt Dust, Oyster Shells, Buck Wheat, Sea Ouze, Yard Dung, Sea Weed, Leaves, Pond Weeds, River Mud, Town Manure, and Oil-Cake.

Coastal farm in Norfolk on the beaches of Yarmouth
For the avid crop farmer, the 'crop' was the primary focus, with the livestock on the farm a secondary consideration. The livestock, whether it be cows, pigs or sheep, etc.. were actually tools used by many farmers to improve or produce a good manure for their crop fields -- such as the unique use of sea sand. In the coastal parish of Yarmouth, sea sand was brought in to farmers for manuring.

"There is a singular practice at Yarmouth, which has been common time out of mind, of littering all stock, such as horses, cows etc... with sea sand. A number of Yarmouth one-horse or one-ass carts, are employed to bring sand from the shore for this purpose, and it is done the more largely, that the quantity of muck to sell to the farmers may be the greater. Mr. Thurtell manures all his turnips with this dung, and it is excellent." 
"The sand ought to be ten days or a fortnight under the horses and cows, being gradually drawn back with hoes, and fresh supplied: many thousand loads are thus made annually; and great quantities are taken into the country by the sailing barges called keels. Ten large cart loads per acre are a good dressing, as much as three horses can draw. . . Mr. Thurtell brings it all winter long. He observes however that it is not durable, the chief force of it is exhausted in the turnips and following barley."

Ever Thought About Rolling out a Round Bale of Good Hay for your Cows to Trample or Tread?

Many farmers put up 'straw' from their grass lands; but, they would not feed this straw to their livestock. Instead, they layered the straw in the livestock paddock and the livestock would do what nature intends, urinate and defecate; and just as importantly, they would 'tread' on the straw and their own excrement and thus create an enhanced 'muck' or 'Yard Dung' for manuring from their own footsteps.

"Mr. Reeve is clear that all straw should be trodden into muck, and none eaten. He has kept a large dairy of cows, and thinks them the worst stock that can be on a farm, as turnips are drawn for them . . and more straw is eaten by them, instead of being trodden, than by any other stock. His expression was, "I would not have a mouthful eaten."

Early 19th century farm workers. Courtesy M. E. Brine (
 "Mr Dursgate would not have a bullock on his farm, except for treading straw into muck: he would have none eaten."
The resulting muck was cleaned out of the paddocks and stored in a heap, sometimes with additions like marle. Some farmers turned the dung pile periodically, some did not. The straw based muck was carted out to the fields, and was generally 'tucked in' to the soil to get the best results, not just scattered on the surface.

Long Dung or Short Dung? What is your opinion?

Probably the most hotly debated topic was the use of 'long dung' or 'short dung'. Long dung was relatively fresh dung from livestock; short dung had gone through the fermentation process during storage of less than a year in a dung heap. There was also 'over-year' dung, generally considered undesirable, and was simply dung heaps that were kept for over a year prior to use.

Long dung was more difficult to 'tuck-in' to the soil, but it was considered to have more lasting manuring properties-- beyond just one season of turnips and barley or wheat, which were primary crops of Norfolk. Short dung was the powdered residue left of the muck after the fermentation process; all the liquids had seeped out.

"Mr. Styleman, of Snettisham, carts out his yard muck on to platforms of marle, turns over, and lays it on for turnips. He thinks long muck might do well for strong land."

"Mr. Saffory ,of Downham, turns over the dung in the yard and then carts it for turnips, ploughing in directly. He has seen very long fresh dung spread and ploughed in directly for turnips, and it has answered well on strong, but not on light land."
"Mr. Porter, of Watlington, turns over dunghills, to have the muck short for turnips, not liking long dung at all; it makes the land scald."

"Mr. Goddison, Steward to the Earl of Cholmon-Deley ,at Houghton, considers rotten dung as necessary for wheat on light soils; (but). . . that if a fair comparative experiment were made he would bet on long dung against short."

"Mr. Dyele, of Scotter, makes platforms of earth, then a layer of marle, and turns over, then adds muck, and turns again, whether for turnips or wheat. Has on many acres carted long fresh stable muck for turnips, ploughing it in at once, and gained fine crops if the season proved wet; but not in a dry time."

A Pennsylvania Country Fair 1824, by John Archibald Woodside, Sr.
NOTE: There are white cows with black points in this painting, most probably Shorthorns

Ever Thought about Fertilizing your Home Garden with Cottonseed Cake or Meal? Or your pastures!

There were other very unique uses of natural materials for 'manuring' of crop fields. One particularly interesting was the use of 'oil-cake'. Generally, you think of oil-cake as a feed for cattle, heavily in use today in the modern version called cottonseed meal or cake. However, many farmers of Britain felt the oil-cake was an excellent choice for manuring their crops, rather than feeding their livestock, and it's use was a long tradition in some parts of Norfolk.

Mr. Young tells us: "From 40 to 50 years ago this was a very common manure in West Norfolk; 35 years ago I registered the husbandry of manuring there with oil-cake; then chiefly spread for wheat."

The oil-cake had to be broken up into chunks, "broken to the size of walnuts", or reduced to a powdery form. Apparently, the oil-cake of the early 1800's was not considered as good a manure as it once was due to the mills 'pressing' more of the good stuff out. It was generally considered by many farmers to be a great manure for growing wheat, with some residual fertilizing qualities for the follow-on crop of turnips; while other farmers swore by it as an excellent manure for turnips.

"Mr. Hill, of Waterden, has much doubt of the benefit of this manure, and thinks that it is often used (the great expense of it considered) to loss. For the last three years it has decreased in goodness, by reason of the increased power of the mills, exertions caused as he thinks by the great demand. It should not be used in less quantity than two tons to five acres, and always for turnips in preference to wheat." 

"Mr. England, of Binham, uses much rape-cake, and this year his turnips, thus manured, are his best. The cake-dust should be scaled in, early in May."

"Mr. Reeve, of Wighton, uses large quantities of rape-cake for his turnips, which in a wet season is an excellent manure. Mucked turnips come quicker at first than caked ones, but the latter exceed them afterwards: it is best applied three weeks or a month before sowing the seed. . ."
 "Mr. Syble, of South Walsham, feeds many bullocks with oil-cake, and finds that one load of the dung is worth two of any other:  This he thinks by far the best, and even the cheapest way, of getting a farm into condition, and laughs at the idea of buying rape-cake for manure, when compared with this superior practice. It is expensive to men who put lean beasts to cake, but if they are what is called fat before cake be given, it answers welI."

Great Yarmouth Wind Farm
 The Great Wealth of Rich Soils a Gift of the Seas:

Arthur Young reported well and in rich detail on the 'state of husbandry' in the County of Norfolk. At the same time, he shares with us his own thoughts and opinions on the 'why' of the richness of the soils of the kingdom of Britain. Mr. Young attributed this great wealth of rich soils as a gift of the seas:
 "As the sea still retires from this coast, it is easy to perceive in what manner all this country has been the gift of that overwhelming element . . .I observed that the whole country has been a present from the ocean: this is obvious from numerous appearances . . ."

Sadly, over 200 years later, our global seas are regularly and daily polluted by all sorts of hazards, including human waste, nuclear waste, and plastic garbage and more -- all changing the ecological dynamic of the oceans which contributed no doubt to our rich soils around the world. Rather than expend vast sums of money and time on the pursuit of a rapid and significant positive change in our care of the oceans of the world -- we are bombarded by governments and organizations with the doom of imminent Global Warming and revenue redistribution plans such as 'cap and trade' based largely on penalizing the production of air pollutants - both naturally occurring such as a cow's methane, and man-made.
Without the eco-system of our oceans in good 'health', what matters if the ozone layer is eventually compromised by air pollutants?  Why in the interests of carbon capture should governments attempt to exert control over whether a small farmer plows or no-till drills his pastures or cropland?  Why consider regulating a cow's methane production from belching?  Why? Which will occur first, and have the most significant impact ?  The permanent loss of the bio-diversity and 'health' of our seas, or the warming of our climate? 

Arthur Young, (1741-1820) Source: Wikipedia
I suspect Arthur Young would wish to see at least an equal concern for both our lands and our seas and the air we breath.  And can you just imagine the eyebrow raised over a discussion of whether turnips or potatoes fed to cows was causing global warming?

(1) ". . ." General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk , By Board of Agriculture (Great Britain), Arthur Young, 1813