The Straight Poop from a New Connoisseur of Manure

As we plan our farm, Doug and I often mull on whether it will include livestock.   I’m not looking to keep animals for meat, but dairy seems so useful, sheep (to a knitter and spinner like me) just look right  grazing on a hill.  Chickens would be a great source of cruelty-free eggs.  It seems likely we will have some animals.

--Poultry manure has long been recognized as high octane fertilizer because of its rich nitrogen content.  Photo by darren-barry at Flikr

--Poultry manure has long been recognized as high octane fertilizer because of its rich nitrogen content. Photo by darren-barry at Flickr

But in fact, we are  feeding and watering the most valuable of all livestock, and I love them  as much as I will ever love my fierce little hens or my woolly lambs.  We are herding trillions and trillions of little microbes as they tirelessly chomp their way through our composting manure pile.

It’s not a very big pile yet, but I have hauled many loads of horse manure from my accommodating neighbor across the road and mixed it with hay we have scythed around the barn, and it’s a beginning.  We are working this batch up for the growing boxes we plan to build in the greenhouse this winter.

My grandpa respected manure on his 80 acre farm in central Illinois.  I remember being dragged through it when the calf I was leading had other ideas.  I know he put every bit of that manure to good use, but by the time I was old enough to ask him to share his wisdom it was too late.

So  I ask others, and I prowl the internet, and I am starting to feel like a real connoisseur of  manure.  Let me share a few fun facts about poop.

--Sheep manure is another "hot' manure.  It has been described as dry and very rich.  Photo by wiberg-powi at Flikr

--Sheep manure is another "hot' manure. It has been described as dry and very rich. Photo by wiberg-powi at Flikr

ALL MANURE IS NOT CREATED EQUAL. (See the handy chart below)  And some manure should be strictly avoided for growing food – primarily those collected from meat-eaters such as dogs, cats, or humans.  Hogs are also on this list.  This is because they may contain parasites and pathogens that might happily make the transition to human hosts.

ALL MANURE SHOULD BE COMPOSTED. No manure is very safe until it has been composted.  Mix the manure with some kind of straw.  Composting will begin as soon as the raw materials are combined.  The microbugs immediately begin to chow on the easily degradable elements while sucking down all the oxygen they can reach.  While they party, the temperature of the pile shoots up to 120-140 and should stay there for several weeks.  When the pile cools, it will continue to slowly decompose as the last raw materials are consumed by the remaining microorganisms.

Rabbit manure is even higher in nitrogen than some poultry manture and also rich in phosphorus. Photo by Svadilfairies Flickr.

Rabbit manure is even higher in nitrogen than some poultry manture and also rich in phosphorus. Photo by Svadilfairies Flickr.

COMPOST NEEDS TO BREATH.  Without oxygen, the party turns nasty, and anaerobic, which is a much slower and smellier process.  I keep the pile breathing deeply by turning it with a pitchfork often.

COMPOST NEEDS TO DRINK. Those hardworking microbes need a drink just like any marathoner, and that means keeping between 40 to 65% moisture in your pile.  Decomposition will drag if it gets too dry and if it gets too wet, water will crowd out that ever-needed oxygen.

As a rule of thumb, your manure compost is too wet if water can be squeezed out of a handful and too dry if it does not feel moist to the touch.  You have to be brave to compost manure!

COMPOST IS YOUR BEST FRIEND. Manure can add a lot of nutrients to the soil (see chart below) but just as important is what it does to soil  structure.  It acts like tiny sponges in sandy soil, soaking up and holding valuable moisture.  If your soil seems like something only a potter could love, it will loosen it up so that roots and air can make their way through it.

Composition of Manure from Samples Reported in
Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers

Fresh Manure with bedding or litter: Moisture (%) Nitrogen
(%N)
Phosphorus
(%P2O5)
Potassium
(%K2O)
Cattle 86 11 4 10
Duck 61 22 29 10
Goose 67 22 11 10
Hen 73 22 22 10
Hog 87 11 6 9
Horse 80 13 5 13
Sheep 70 20 15 21
Turkey 74 26 14 10
Dried Commercial products:
Cattle 10 42 42 61
Hen 13 31 31 40
Hog 10 45 45 20
Rabbit 16 26 26 32
Sheep 16 32 32 41
From: Lorenz, Oscar A. and Donald N. Maynard. 1980
Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers. Second edit. Pg. 75-76

http://www.hort.cornell.edu/gardening/factsheets/ecogardening/guidenutval.html

--Intrepid Tombo guards our brown gold.

----The Intrepid Tombo guards our brown gold.

Composted manure can be applied anytime in a layer 1″ to 2″ deep and tilled into the soil. Use half these rates for poultry, rabbit, and sheep manures, which are more potent. You still may need to add phosphate and potash fertilizers since most manures don’t provide sufficient amounts of all nutrients. A soil test will indicate if these are needed.  I got this last tip from Farmer Fred.

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