by Meyrick Brown

There may soon be an answer to one of the major problems which have increasingly troubled most livestock farmers over the past 60 years.

Since the traditional cowsheds and cattle yards have become outdated, stock keepers have been faced with the constant difficulty of coping with progressively growing amounts of wet muck or slurry.

With ever greater cubicle housed dairy and beef herds well managed silos and lagoon storage have been constructed, often aggravated by heavy rainfall, or the stuff has to be carted and spread on a daily basis.

A herd of 200 cows can produce in excess of 2 million gallons of manure each year (much more in a high rainfall area).

Slurry is a concentrated, liquid animal waste that cannot be composted and contains higher levels of nitrates and phosphates and, over a period of many years, various devices have been developed and tested to provide an effective separation process.

Uncompromising EU regulations determine when and how muck – considered to be 95 per cent water – may or may not be spread since these chemicals can leach into the soil and enter the water table if the natural fertiliser is not stored properly.

Under present rules, called the Nitrate Pollution Prevention regulations, all farmers that spread slurry on their land will also have to keep so-called "poo records", detailing when, where and how much had been spread. These records are checked regularly by officials from Natural Resources Wales.

Farmers have three years to comply with the new storage rules and begin observing the new spreading restrictions and in order to comply with which the NFU reckons will cost the industry at least £250m. Organic farmers are exempt.

Light at the end of the tunnel comes from a Wales Government initiative, in association with a south Wales company and the Carmarthenshire College, to develop a means of “de- watering” 80 per cent of the liquid from the slurry and purifying it to such an extended that it will be clean enough to return to the rivers.

Some details are expected to become available at the Royal Welsh Show ahead of an official announcement which will take place at the 2017 Muck and Soil Event being held at the Gelli Aur facility, part of the University of Wales Trinity St David / Carmarthenshire College Campus on Thursday, August 24.

This welcome news is likely to be on the same lines as new technology developed by the University of Michigan which has hit a major milestone in extracting useful, clean water from manure.

Though it can often be used helpfully as fertiliser, manure is still a big problem for farmers; a farm with 1,000 cows might produce about 10 million gallons of manure a year. That’s a lot of poop; what do we do with it?

This new solution takes advantage of the fact that manure, like almost everything else in biology, is made up mostly of water. Extracting that water can reduce the sheer volume enormously, making it easier to store and discard.

What’s more, this technique lets the researchers extract some of the most useful agricultural substances in the manure –with their full treatment regime, water extracted from the manure can be fed back to livestock as drinking water.

That could have a profound impact on the profitability of beef and other farmed foods. It could also do a lot for air quality, which is damaged by release of ammonia and other molecules from these billions of gallons of manure.

The Michigan team can choose to extract these chemicals from the manure, then remove them from the water in a second filtration step. Alternatively, ammonia and other nitrogen-based chemicals can be very helpful in crop rotation, and this could help keep such compounds in the soil and not in the atmosphere.

Right now, 100 gallons of manure produce about 50 gallons of clean water, but the university team wants to pump that number up to 65 before long – this is the sort of basic breakthrough that could have impacts rippling down to your food prices and your tax rates, as more profitable farms need less government assistance.