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Farmers muck in to learn about manure

WHERE there's muck, there's a class.

It's not just subsidies that are distributed across England's green and pleasant land, as those who work on it know only too well.

These days, though, muck-spreading has moved on a long way from the simple act of flinging the stuff across the ground with the manly swing of a shovel.

In the smelly world of fertilisation, what was once a manual craft has been turned into a science not to be sniffed at, which is why farm workers have been returning to education to get it right.

Muck Matters is the name of a new training initiative for farmers in East Anglia who want to make the most effective use of manure. It has been launched by the training organisation Agricultural Development in the Eastern Region, with the support of the Environment Agency, the East of England Development Agency and the National Farmers Union.

"We are very keen to provide courses that both help farmers satisfy standards that the new regulations will ask of them and also give them some real financial savings into the bargain," said Chris Knock, a pig and arable farmer and a project manager at ADER.

Three agronomists - soil and crop management experts - will lead the development of farmers' skills in what is thought to be the first course of its type in the UK.

It follows a recommendation for improved training of farmers contained in a report presented to Downing Street by the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food.

Although the NFU has rejected the Commission's key proposal, which aims to fundamentally change the way farming is subsidised, it is enthusiastic about the call for more money to improve skills in the industry. There are three three-hour sessions in which students learn the value and use of natural fertilisers, followed by two workshops in which they work with an agronomist on an individual farm plan.

Farmers should then be able to more accurately predict the level of nutrients being applied, allowing them to reduce the amount of inorganic fertiliser they have to buy.

"This is an excellent way of telling farmers of the positive gains they can make by using their manure more efficiently," said Sian Thomas, regional corporate affairs manager of the Environment Agency.

Their newly-developed skills will be supplemented by the compilation of the farm fertiliser plan. The course anticipates the introduction of a new government initiative on nitrate pollution, based on the need to meet the requirements of a European directive and scheduled to take effect in December.

This could see most of England designated as a nitrate-vulnerable zone, with possible extra controls and regulations imposed on the use of fertiliser.

In a further initiative this year to help recover from the effects of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, schools and colleges will be encouraged to visit re-opened farms.

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