Before commercial fertilizers – even before the chemistry that revealed the prime importance of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (potash) – farmers used a handful of mineral compounds which had shown some success in the improvement of their land; either by introduction of nutrients, modification of pH, or improvement of texture (which modified how much water or nutrients a soil could retain for a given time). Sir Humphrey Davy, in his Elements of Agricultural Chemistry±, an 1810 compilation of lectures for the Board of Agriculture, listed many of these, as did Sir John Sinclair’s 1814 General Report of the Agricultural State. However, it appears that the quantitative detail on the application of these manures didn’t appear in the literature until years later (saving Sinclair’s instruction on liming). Below is one such account on the use of bone dust (phosphate) from an 1835 American publication.
± This link is to the 1836 Edition.
Manuring with Bone Dust – Details
REPORT ON THE VALUE OF BONE MANURE IN COMPARISON WITH ORDINARY FARMYARD MANURE
By the Honorable Captain W. Ogilvy, Airlie Castle
(From the Prize Essays and Transactions of the Highland Society of Scotland.)
‘Mr. Watson of Keilor introduced the use bone manure into Strathmore, having seen it used in England. I am not certain in what year he began to make experiments with it or to employ it extensively, but I remember well that the great deficiency of farm yard dung in 1827 (consequent on the almost total failure of the crop of the previous year) first induced me to try four acres of turnip without other manure sown with 15 bushels of bone dust per acre which I obtained from Mr Watson: it cost 3s per bushel or £2 5s. per acre. The crop of turnip on these four acres was at least equal to the rest raised with farm yard manure; but as the whole of the turnips were pulled, and the land received some dung before the succeeding crop, much stress cannot be laid on the circumstance of the following white crop and grass being good.
Next year, 1828, encouraged by the former successful experiment, eight acres were sown with turnip solely with bone dust; the soil a light, sandy loam; the subsoil gravely and sand coming in some places nearly to the surface, which is very irregular, but in general has a south exposure This field had been broken up with a crop of oats in 1827, after having been depastured six years principally by sheep. The quantity of bone dust given was 20 bushels per acre and cost 2s 6d per bushel, or £2 10s per acre. The turnip crop was so heavy, that, notwithstanding the very light nature of the soil, it was judged advisable to pull one third for the feeding cattle, two drills pulled, and four left to be eaten on the ground by sheep. The following year, 1829, these eight acres sown with barley and grass seeds, and the produce was 57 bolls 1 bushel, or 7 bolls 1 bushel nearly, per acre, of grain, equal in quality to the best in the Dundee market, both in weight and color. Next year, a fair crop of hay for that description of land was cut, about 150 stones an acre; and though am now convinced that the field should rather have been depastured the first year, yet the pasture was better than it had ever been known before for the two following seasons, 1831 and 1832. It is worthy of remark as a proof of the efficacy of the bone manure, that in a small angle of this field, in which I had permitted a cottager to plant potatoes, well dunged, and which, after their removal, was included in one of the flakings sheep, and had (one might have supposed) thereby had at least equal advantage with the bone-dust turnip-land, both the barley and grass crops were evidently inferior, and this continued to be observable until the field was again ploughed up. A very bulky crop of oats has been reaped this season, probably upwards of eight bolls per acre, but no part of it is yet thrashed.
Having detailed what may be considered a fair experiment during the whole rotation of the above eight acres, I may add, that turnip raised with bone manure, and fed off with sheep, has now become a regular part of the system on this farm; 15, 20, and, last year 25 acres were fed off, and invariable with the same favorable results, with the prospect of being able to adopt a five shift rotation, and to continue it without injury to the land. Every person in the least acquainted with the management of a farm, of which a considerable proportion consists of light, dry, sandy loam, at a distance from town manure, must be aware the importance of this, from knowing the expense at which such land was formerly kept in a fair state of cultivation; indeed, the prices of corn for some years past would not warrant the necessary outlay, and large tracts of land, capable of producing barley little inferior to that of Norfolk, must speedily have been converted into sheep pasture, but for the introduction of bone manure.
Note – For the last four years, 25 bushels of bone dust have been given to the acre: the price this year was 3s. per bushel or £2 15s per acre.
[The foregoing article places in a striking point of view, the value of a kind of manure which is entirely neglected in Virginia, and used no where (we believe) in the United States, except near the city of New York, and there to a very limited extent. Two individuals are there engaged in pulverising bones for sale – but though the price of the prepared article is much lower than in England, there is not sufficient demand for what the mills have pounded, and a large quantity recently was about to be exported to England for a market.
Many farmers would try the use of bones if they could be pounded by their own laborers, but this cannot be done as yet with economy, and the owners of mills in and near our towns have not thought of entering into the business. Yet there can be no doubt of the profit to all the parties if some one having proper facilities for procuring the bones insufficient quantities, and for pounding them, would commence the business, and intelligent and improving farmers would buy the new manure. The prices in England have been regulated by long and accurate trial of the effects of the manure – and farmers have been thereby convinced that they can afford to give prices varying between fifty and sixty six cents the bushel. Here they might be profitably prepared by millers at half cost – and therefore might be applied with double profit by the purchaser. We hope that some one of the owners of the great flour mills in Richmond or Petersburg, whose machinery and water power are without employment for the greater part of the year, will make a trial of crushing and grinding bones for sale and that their neighbors, the “town farmers”, will take care that the want of purchasers shall not cause loss to the enterprise, or put a stop to the work before a full and fair trial of the effects of the manure.]’