Autumn: The Season of Maize and Muddy Rivers

“SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!

Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,

And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.”


What would Keats have made of Autumn in West Dorset these days?


Maize stubble West Dorset (c) Miles King

Maize fields are harvested  – for dairy farms or biodigesters, their stubble is left over winter. Compacted soils prevent water from infiltrating. Soil, or rather the pale shadow that passes for a substrate used by so many arable farmers these days, is washed away into streams and rivers, or onto roads. The River Bride, into which this and many other maize -stubble fields empties, was a muddy-brown lifeless thing as it approached the sea.

Maize isn’t just bad for rivers and soil – it’s bad for cattle too. I’ve written many times about Maize and the problems growing it creates.

Research published yesterday has added to the mounting evidence that farmers who grow maize, increase the chances of their cattle getting bovine TB. A study of 1300 farms in high TB areas is a big study by any standards.

The team found that farms with herds of 150 cattle or more were 50% more likely to suffer a bovine TB outbreak than those with herds of 50 or fewer. Patterns of crop production and feeding were also important, with the risks increasing with practices linked with higher productivity systems. For every 10 hectares of maize – a favourite food of the badgers that play a role in transmitting the disease – bTB risk increased by 20%. The feeding of silage was linked with a doubling of the risk in both dairy and beef systems. Landscape features such as deciduous woodland, marshes and hedgerows were also important. For example, on farms with 50km of field boundaries, each extra 1km of hedgerow was linked with a 37% reduction in risk. This is likely to be because there is less contamination of pasture by badger faeces and urine in hedgerow-rich areas. Marshland was associated with increased risk, possibly as a secondary effect of infection with liver fluke – a disease linked with wet environments and which interferes with the diagnosis of bTB in cattle. (Read more here)

There is a solution. If you drink milk, buy organic milk. Organic dairy farms do not use maize to feed their cows. Maize production, which is increasing exponentially, also needs to be much more tightly controlled, so it is not allowed by watercourses or on steep slopes and undersowing with winter cover crops should be mandatory if stubbles are left overwinter. If necessary maize growing should be subject to a polluter pays approach and be taxed, with the income used to mitigate its impacts downstream and on soil.



About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in badgers, bovine TB, Maize and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Autumn: The Season of Maize and Muddy Rivers

  1. sue Everett says:

    There is Land under organic entry stewardship near my house and it is trashed: consistent breaches of cross compliance and nobody takes any notice. they just cultivated the field again and ploughed all around the Oak tree right up to it’s trunk like they did when they Ploughed the permanent pasture about 6 or 7 years ago presumably to preempt the EU regulations. There’s already been three applications of slurry on this land this year alone. Maize is the badger’s fave food. We all know that. Intensive farming has created a very badger friendly countryside because of the plentiful winter food for the animals.

    • The commercial Organic Movement has really lost its way, imo. It has strayed very far away from the wholistic outlook of the Pictons, Eve Balfour, HJ Massingham and other founding people. There is a basic conflict of interest for any organisation which seeks to represent both producers and consumers, the production rules have grown into a micro-managing bureaucracy, and in terms of produce to buy it has degenerated into a mere niche market for the middle classes. Very, very sad.

      Many of us grow without artificials on allotments and smallholdings, nurturing biodiversity, but are prevented from selling any produce as organic because, firstly the rules are so overcomplicated, and secondly, certification is completely unaffordable. By the same token, most cannot afford to buy certified organic food, due in large part to the high transaction costs associated with the current organic cert business model which excludes so many growers.

      Ottoline Leyser had the brilliant idea of high biodiversity farming produce. Not sure what happened to that idea. It would be much more practical, evidence-based and geared towards creating real and demonstrable environmental outcomes rather than the current micro-managerial starting point.

      By the way, the phrase “higher productivity systems” is a complete misnomer when applied to the maize monocultures bred to large fertilizer and pesticide applications. The inputs in terms of fossil fuels and agrochemicals are very large, as are the negative externalities you mention such as soil erosion and pollution of water and air. The outputs, in stark contrast, are limited to only one industrial crop much of whose calories are then dissipated rapidly by being fed to animals. Such a system is not productive in any meaningful sense.

  2. Muntjac were the guilty party eating the maize on our allotment this year!

  3. John Jones says:

    I think there is a wider case for those who value wildlife and nature conservation to buy as much organically-produced food as they can afford. This mode of farming which avoids artificial fertilisers, pesticides and the routine use of anti-biotics and also avoids GM inputs to cattle feed is surely what we would like to see practised more widely. Studies have shown, not unsurprisingly, that organic farms have a higher abundance and variety of wildlife. But not enough people support it so it only accounts for about 4% of the total area of farmland. If enough supporters of nature conservation used their power as consumers then the total area devoted to organic would increase. I always buy organic milk and bread (I don’t want bread that has been laced with glyphosate) and as much other organic produce as I am able. It may cost a bit more but in the same way that I am prepared to make donations to the RSPB for campaigns and investment in nature reserves I consider the addition cost to be worthwhile.

  4. Charlie Routh says:

    “The team found that farms with herds of 150 cattle or more were 50% more likely to suffer a bovine TB outbreak than those with herds of 50 or fewer.”
    Surely the relevant metric is bTB per head, not per herd? Its hardly surprising that the more cattle in the herd the more likely one will have bTB. Indeed I’m surprised that if the herd size is trippled the herd incidence is only up by 50% Ditto “For every 10 hectares of maize… bTB risk [presumably the herd] increased by 20%.” Am I missing something?

    • J Brown says:

      Perhaps we’re missing the fact that intensive farming in and of itself increases bTB due to the stressful conditions that cattle endure in such practices? Even the above article insinuates some kind of badger responsibility – even though science has been unable to prove this in 40 years. It’s amazing the lengths that the farming community and politicians will go to deny farming practice culpability in this issue.

    • Miles King says:

      If all other things are equal, why would a larger herd be more likely to have a bovine TB breakdown?

      • J Brown says:

        Intensive farming practices, by their very nature, are more stressful to cattle, and is less likely to adhere to strict biosecurity measures that would reduce illness. Additionally, as the basic cause of bTB is the reservoir of unidentified, infected cattle in the national herd, mathematically it would be logical that larger herds would have more ‘false positives’ or ‘unconfirmed reactors’.

      • Charlie Routh says:

        I guess in the same way that there is more likely to be a single case of flu/cancer/hiv/what you will in a large group of people than in a small one.

      • Miles King says:

        I think the researchers will have taken this factor into account Charlie.

  5. David Dunlop says:

    What would Keats have made of Autumn in West Dorset these days?

    “Ay, in the very temple of Delight
    Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine”

  6. Pingback: Storm Frank comes close to home | A Dartmoor blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.