Using a slurry booster that captures wasted nitrogen is part of a broader campaign on a Shropshire farm to cut the use of bagged fertiliser and reduce carbon footprint.
Sheep and dairy producer, John Buckley, has taken giant strides in making his family business fit for the future, with a keen focus on embracing science and technology to improve efficiency, reduce labour, cut carbon footprint and add new streams of income as subsidies decline.
Farming with brother Paul, uncle Gwyn and mother, Gail at Cefn Isaf, in the Tanat Valley on the Powys/Shropshire border, the family’s main enterprises are its 9,300-litre dairy herd and 1,200 ewes. These run across the home farm’s 200 acres and a further 250 acres of rented land.
However, both brothers were encouraged by their father in their youth to train in other professions and John’s skills as a mechanic and Paul’s as a plumber offer the chance of outside income, as well as bringing skills which are needed on the farm.
Today, the whole package includes a thriving contracting business, built largely around a precision slurry application system. This comprises a Tramspread Remote engine system, Abbey umbilical slurry injector and dribble bar system, which is integrated with Tanlake ISOBUS slurry management software. All of this slashes greenhouse gas emissions and soil compaction compared with tanker applications with a traditional splash plate.
The investment in this machinery dovetails with a 3,200 cubic metre slurry tank, constructed on the farm in 2017, creating slurry storage for the 100 milkers plus followers, for up to six months.
The focus on slurry handling has transformed the operation of the farm, allowing the family to switch to more regular spreading, to cut its carbon footprint and make big financial savings.
It also scores well with their milk and lamb buyers, Arla and Waitrose, for whom environmental credentials are increasingly important.
A key component of the success has been the introduction of the slurry booster, Digest-It, which has not only increased the fertiliser value of the farm’s slurry and eased its application, but helped cut the amount of bagged fertiliser used by 10-15 tonnes each year.
John explains: “Last winter was the first time we spread slurry treated with Digest-It and we really noticed the difference.” In particular, he says stirring the tank took a fraction of the previous time, as the little crust which had formed was quick to disperse.
“Our big pit could take almost a day to stir in the past, but since we’ve added Digest-It, this has been cut to around an hour,” he says. “There is very little crust to break through and we save a lot of labour and diesel with the shorter time spent stirring.”
This also helps his contracting clients who have chosen to use the same bacterial product in their slurry, as stirring time for their tanks has similarly declined.
However, he says the biggest bonus in handling is the slurry’s lack of sediment, and the uniformity in its consistency over several days.
“To be honest, we’ve taken to spreading little and often – after every cut of silage and each time the stock are moved from their rotational grazing – but if we spread over three days, we find the slurry is consistent from day one to day three.
“The product just seems to work really well, and the grass is clearly palatable after slurry application,” he says. “It’s nothing like slurry bug products we tried in the past which seemed to do nothing whatsoever.”
However, despite the benefits seen in slurry handling, the true savings of using the bacterial product have been seen in its boost to fertiliser value.
Michael Carpenter from Kelvin Cave Ltd, who supply the Digest-It, says the aerobic bacteria in the slurry additive capture ammonium nitrogen, which may otherwise be given off as gas and wasted.
“This is a remarkably effective process as nitrogen in the ammonium form is readily available to the crop, but it is also readily lost as ammonia gas through volatilisation,” he says. “So, if ammonium nitrogen can be captured in the slurry before it is lost, it doesn’t just add fertiliser value, but it prevents the escape of a gas which Defra have said will soon be the subject of environmental regulations as part of the Clean Air Strategy.
“This is a clear win-win situation,” he says.
The beneficial effects of these processes have been demonstrated by independent trials undertaken by Kingshay, which show Digest-It increases available nitrogen in slurry by 13% over six weeks and 17% over eight weeks. This has been shown to increase to 33% in other, longer trials over the course of the winter.
At typical slurry application rates of 67m³/ha (6,000 gallons/acre) over a spring-summer period, Digest-It treated slurry will provide an additional 26kg available nitrogen/ha (21 units N/acre). This is worth around £45 to £55/ha at current fertiliser prices.
John says results on the Buckley family farm reflect these findings, where the normal annual usage of bagged nitrogen of 60 tonnes a year was down to 40-45 tonnes last year – the first year in which the slurry was treated with the bacterial product.
“Since day one of the new pit, we know we have saved money, and with the slurry additive, we don’t feel we are wasting nitrogen any more,” he says. “We also go straight on with slurry after silage has been cut and we can put sheep on the land, unless they are lambing, the day after slurry injection.”
Reflecting on his contracting business, he says: “A lot of farmers hadn’t realised the potential value of slurry, but in 2021 we saw that change.”
Back at Cefn Isaf, other practices have also set the farm up for the future, ranging from a switch to the ProCROSS three-way rotational breeding system to installing Fullwood Merlin robots and a Lely Discovery robotic vacuum and scraper.
“All of these things are improving our herd’s health and milk solids performance, reducing our labour and increasing our efficiency,” says John.
They are also accumulating to reduce carbon footprint, which is confirmed through Arla, who have scored the farm with 1.12kg CO2-equivalent per litre of milk produced, in its ‘Climate Check’ analysis.
There is much more the family still wants to do, including installing solar panels and investing in slurry testing equipment, but it is clearly firmly on the right course in its progress made to date.