I heart manure. I happen to believe that agriculture needs animals to survive. Nature operates that way, so I think our farms and gardens should too. One of the single most limiting factors in a vegetable garden or cropping system is having enough fertilizer. I don’t mean the 16-16-16 at the co-op, there is plenty of that if you can afford it. I mean the black gold that comes from gathering animal manures along with carbon materials and letting nature take its course. Our compost piles on our farm are made up of gathered animal manure, and different bedding materials, such as straw or sawdust. And I don’t think you need large livestock either. Any animal will do, for doo. Several laying hens, rabbits, goats, sheep, and worms are the first to come to mind for a small farm, or urban gardener. The key ingredient is gathering carbon to tie down those nutrients that your animals are so lovingly giving you each day. Another important thing to consider is gathering this material now and throughout the winter and early spring. The soil is dormant now, applying manure or compost can be a potential waste. Applying fertilizer when plants are actively growing is the optimum time, for the plants, and the soil.
Where do you find carbon for tying down the nutrients in your manure? Look around and ask. A horse stable near us, hauls their stable cleanings, made up of horse manure and sawdust, to us for free. They see it as a liability. We see it as free carbon – delivered! We use it for as bedding for the cows, in addition to straw. We also buy straw, from a small farmer like us. I have no problem importing fertility from another farm as long that farmer is willing to part with it, and if I know the farmer hasn’t sprayed a potentially harmful herbicide on his crop. If I were to grow the grain crop to get that straw, I would have to work up more pasture land, which I don’t want to do. Any crop that bares the soil, is depleting it. Grass does not. So to be ahead of the game, bring in, or grow your own carbon. You will be at least tripling your output of manure. Straight manure is too strong anyway for gardens.
Another way to get more bang for your buck is to feed top quality natural minerals and salt to your stock. High quality kelp meal and Redmond salt come to mind. Anything you can run through an animal’s digestive system comes out better than what goes in. Our house compost goes to our hens, coffee grounds, eggshells, peelings, and whatever. I don’t have to maintain a compost pile that the dogs want to get into, and the hens get a treat. Same with plant residues in the garden. Our Thanksgiving turkey flock has eaten all the spent brassicas from the garden, and the sheep are in the greenhouse now eating tomato and pepper plants. This helps with the disease factor too. And it makes less cleanup for me.
One year as an experiment I hauled the cleanings from my milk cow stall to the garden and sheet composted it. In 3 1/2 months of barn cleaning, I covered about 1/3 of an acre with those daily wheelbarrow loads. What did I learn? I could cover that much ground in a few months with the output of one cow and small calf. But, I gave the voles excellent cover, and the soil stayed cooler with all that cover. The soil texture was great when it came time to work the soil, but I probably wasted quite a bit of fertility by putting it on the soil during the winter. Even though we have a fair amount of manure, I don’t want to waste it. Now I make large compost piles with the manure from the milk cow. Our compost piles are outside, but they are about 5′ high and sloped. They shed rain, and can really compost. We patiently wait one year before applying. They are on soil, and completely filled with worms until they are finished composting.
Our beef herd is a little different, when the grazing season is over we keep the cattle in the barns with a small sacrifice area. Using a deep bedding pack ala Salatin, we can keep most of the manure from getting rained on. Sometimes the bedding pack is 4′ deep by spring. We apply clean bedding everyday, and it begins to compost a little, providing a comfortable warm bed for the cows. How much bedding does it take? A lot. Joel Salatin’s rule of thumb is “If you smell manure, you are smelling mismanagement.” (That little sentence applies to every type of animal.) Especially ammonia, if you smell that, you should just picture money evaporating into thin air. That is the nitrogen in the manure dissipating. Add more bedding. In a dry climate, you won’t need as much, in a damp climate, you will need more.
We only have a few hens now, and to make the most of their chicken manure, I place their roost against a wall, and bed the spot under it daily with straw. It is amazing how much material I can gather from just 11 hens, and a few bales of straw. It really adds up.
These are just a few of the ways to gather manure from your animals, if you have them. I know it can be a pain to clean out stalls, but just think of how good your garden and pasture can grow. Think of manure as an investment in your future.
If you don’t have livestock, there are many farmers willing to foolishly let go of one of their better assets. A quick tour of blogs turned up a couple photos of husbands out spreading manure on the neighbors place! That is not sustainable for the farm producing the compost, but you can’t blame the neighbor for taking it. So be frugal and keep your manure at home, and if your neighbor offers his, jump at the chance!