Some Seriously Good Sh- er... Manure

Note: This is a repeat from ye olde blogge, brought about by the barn cleaning we're engaged in.

From December to March or the beginning of April, we simply don't clean out the barn. This sounds as if it might be gross, but it really isn't - we keep layering on bedding, and sufficient carbon keeps it from smelling bad - earthy and barnish, sure, but not particularly icky. We don't just do this because we're lazy - this is good husbandry for our climate. The barn has cement floors, left over from its days as a garage, and those cement floors get cold in the winter. A very thick layer of bedding, some of it composting at the bottom and giving off heat is better for the animals. Moreover, cleaning out the barn would involve throwing open the doors for the whole day - some days this is good, but our barn is already pretty well ventilated, and during the coldest weather (-27 was our lowest temp this year), throwing all the accumulated heat of composting and the heat the animals give off out of the barn. Plus we'd have to kick the critters out, and frankly, the chickens especially have no interest in going out in 3 foot drifts of snow.

So there are several months of accumulated manure, plus bits of food, hair, feathers that come off the critters. Cleaning this sounds like it would be rather horrible, but oddly, both Eric and I find it kind of fun. It is physical and strenuous, but not that unpleasant. We have both found that the easiest way to clean the barn is with snow shovels, which do a great job of getting down the bottom of the mess. Once we've got a wheelbarrow full, we start dividing up the rest of the work, he shovels, I put the top layer on the compost pile and the rest of it on the garden beds, and then hack up with a hoe anyplace it has become too dry and calcified. The whole project is the kind of afternoon's work that makes you feel like you are fully entitled to collapse on the couch with a cup of tea afterwards.

This year's manure accumulation was sufficient to almost entirely cover the garden beds and fruit trees on the side yard, plus the courtyard permaculture plantings. I'll be able to finish off the rest of that part of the yard with the remaining compost from the load of horse manure I bartered with a neighbor (she gets room in our hay barn to store her horse's hay for the winter, we get composted manure - yay!) last fall and never got onto the garden.

The front yard garden and plantings, however, are sadly unmanured. Which means we have to go seeking the stuff. Fortunately, we have a horse farm across the street, another around the corner, alpacas down the road and four dairy farms within short range. The barter arrangement I mentioned before, plus the results of other farmer's barn cleanings (the standard response to requests for manure here is "Please, take it!") means that we will be rich with organic matter and fertility for our gardens.

And this is no small issue. It is tough to make enough compost to cover even a moderate sized garden, much less the one we have. One can purchase inputs for one's farm, but these are costly, and many come from far away places. Composted animal manures represent (mostly) a balanced fertilizer when they are properly used to fertilize pasture, or handled correctly. Unfortunately, nearly all industrial animal agriculture treats animal manures in ways that not only unfit them for garden use, but make them contaminants and destructive toxins. Industrial manures, often laden with antibiotics and chemicals, and held in vast lagoons, unmixed with the carbonaceous material that renders the stuff into usable compost and mutes the odor, are toxic, atmosphere destroying, water contaminating, and deeply destructive. On that scale, they are as unlike the manure in my barn as anything could be. Moreover, given the concentration of animals in industrial areas, and the cost of trucking something as wet and heavy as manure, it is almost impossible to distribute it on land. Industrial agriculture turns a useful thing, animal manures, into a toxic, wasteful problem.

And this is one of the big deals in our problem of scale. Decent food yields depend on decent soil fertility. Most of our fertilizers are mined or chemically produced using large quantities of fossil fuels - and, as last year showed, are vulnerable to dramatic price increases, when fossil fuels do. There are also long term isues with phosphorous availability, as well as high costs to divorcing the organic matter in manures from the chemical constituents of fertility - ie, from dumping chemical fertilizers on the ground instead of manuring. Add to that the problem of nitrous oxide in climate impacts and nitrogen toxicity, and you've got a mess. Plus, marginally profitable as most farming is, having to buy more inputs can be the difference between making a profit or not.

Now out in the country where I am, manure access not a major problem. But in denser areas, where most people purchase compost or manures or other inputs that are trucked in, the question of fertility is a long term concern - and a serious one, because in a lower energy world, we're going to need to grow more food where people actually live.

One possible answer is to divert urine, which is (mostly) sterile, and can provide much of the fertility (without the quantity of organic matter) that a garden needs. Another possibility is large scale humanure composting, on the municipal level, although this would involve a radical change in the way we view our toilets - you simply can't dump draino and bleach down them and expect to get food on the other end, which is why treated sewage sludge is so controversial. One way or another, we're going to have to deal with the fact that in the US, the major source of manure comes from an animal with two legs, a large brain and a beer can . There is a very good chance that in the next few decades we will no longer have the option of treating our manures as waste. The project of readapting our infrastructure to use them should be a priority, because of the terrible consequences of not carefully handling human outputs.

Meanwhile, back to my barn, we spread the partly composted manures on the side yard garden - I won't be planting there for a month or so, so there's time for everything to settle in. Other manures are composted a bit more before I use them. I'll go out and broadfork the beds to loosen things up and begin to incorporate today or tomorrow, depending on whether the predicted rain shows up or not.

Shoveling manure is one of those things that we imagine, if we haven't done it, to be intolerable, the symbol of the misery of agriculture, the horrible side effect of our reliance on animals. And if I were channelling pig shit from a thousand industrially raised pigs into a giant manure lagoon, or cleaning out a chicken house with 60,000 hens in it, I'd sure agree. But my animals don't produce manure as a unpleasant consequence of being alive - manure is one of their gifts to me. We don't see their manure as a waste product to be managed, but as an output that we benefit from - my goats produce milk *and* manure for my garden. My chickens give me eggs *and* chicken manure that makes my corn grow tall. Viewed this way, and on a human, rather than industrial scale, it becomes not only a manageable, but desirable thing.

And while I don't always love doing it, with good management, on a home scale, it is really no more unpleasant than changing diapers, perhaps a bit less. And at the root, I know that the decentralization of animal production that I'm practicing, modelling and that I can perhaps help others begin is the answer to much of the contaminating effect of industrial animal production, and also to the problem of how to get a decent yield out of your cucumbers. Cleaning out the barn is just one small step in solving our larger problems.


More like this

A couple weeks ago my older son spent a week back home and he, his brother & I spent this time disassembling our cinder block compost bins, re-leveling the pad, re-stacking the blocks & adding a third bin. Then we cleaned out the poultry house which hadn't been done all winter because the straw & manure had been frozen, and layering all this, along with some manure from the geriatric mules across the road & other organic debris, in the compost bins. Originally, we had 192 cubic feet of compost working. After a couple days, the steam coming out of the PVC vent pipes was so hot that it hurt to hold your hand in it for more than a few seconds. The compost has cooled somewhat by now & its volume has been reduced by about half. It will be ready to be applied to the garden in about a month, when frost danger has past.

Composted manure is a priceless soil amendment & fertilizer. This said, the straw for poultry bedding, bagged leaves & grass clippings, the mule poop, etc., etc... all has to be hauled home for composting. We haul it in a pickup truck & trailer. When gas becomes unaffordable acquiring compostable materials will be problematic for those who don't manage sufficient acreage for growing it themselves. In fact, harvesting, handling, processing organic materials will be backbreaking toil without power equipment. But this work will have to be done. The alternative will be starvation.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

My father raised hogs. In the 1960s in NW Iowa, he was kind of an unusual farmer. He didn't talk much about how folk should do things, but did what he wanted his way.

We fenced off alfalfa hay ground every other year, for a two year hog pasture. The alfalfa moved around as part of the general corn-soybean-government acres-alfalfa rotation on a quarter section (160 acres) of ground. The "government acres" were sowed oats and alfalfa, and cut twice a season to get paid for keeping it out of (corn) production. The second year this was the new alfalfa patch.

The pigs made a mess of their pasture. Ruts, holes dug where the water tank sat (feeders and tank, and portable houses, on runners and moved by tractor). Occasional wallows next to the fence.

In the barn, the winter farrowing was kept with less room, and the hog house changed purposes over the year. When farrowing, we set up farrowing crates, penning the sows just before or after the baby pigs arrived, and turned the sows out twice a day for feed, water, stretch their legs, and let us clean the stalls. When weaned, the crates were removed to make a large open building, with feed and water outside. Cleaning got a bit more "intense", but never like the neighbors putting up early confinement operations (even then they didn't call them "barns"). We used manure forks and aluminum scoop shovels to load the manure spreader, and *always* checked the wind direction for a day or three before picking the field to cover. Mom would be sure to mention if the wind was *toward* the house that day. As you say, the partially composted pile or load didn't make much smell, and that was seldom offensive. The worst was when cleaning up the "fresh" leavings from young and partially confined pigs, the largest concentration and least amount of time available to dry and compost. Raised on a hog farm, we got used to leaving the boots or shoes at the door.

On one farm we kept 200 chickens. Over winter the "pits" under the roosts got really "intense".

Until I was about 12, Dad milked 8 to 12 cows. He quit the cows on doctor's orders, when he developed heart problems. I know Mom and Dad were worried that quitting milking would cost the farm dearly. Mom found, though, that being such a small farm, even in 1964, that income dropped about $2 for the year. Most of the feed was home-grown corn, with commercial feed supplements, and ground with a tractor driven hammer mill and mixed by hand. And still the income barely covered expenses. I recall Dad talking about how the creamery was starting to cut his price, and charge for pickups, since he was such a small operation. Most years we put up corn silage in the farm's small wooden silo.

There was a lot of trading of help and equipment. There were three or four farms that we traded for baling hay, with one baler amongst many. One farmer had a silage "blower" to throw the silage up a chute into the silo. Dad had a couple of flat bed wagons used to load hay bales in the field, for transport to the barn. We got together to help shell corn, since much was stored on the cob. Then the cobs were often ground for feed or bedding.

The cats hated to see the milk cows go.

Sharon, there one major problem you are overlooking, in wanting to localize food production and in challenging the bigotry of the Department of Agriculture and regulations at all levels, biased toward large, industrial agriculture. That is, with fewer producers, it is much simpler for the corrupt and lazy, and opportunistic, to manipulate markets and profits. An even bigger issue is exports.

The US government has made food exports a big part of the way they shop and intimidate around the world. Last year the USDA deliberately manipulated and lied about reserves on hand and predicted harvest levels, in order to export lots and lots of grains and other food. With localized food production, the cost of aggregating the millions of tons for export gets kind of exposed. That is, the actual costs of exports, and the proportion of food being handled for export will get noticed, and the costs cannot be as easily swept under the rug - and onto the farmer in hidden costs and charges. In one perspective, localizing food in the US without a corresponding development of localized food abroad could be said to threaten national security. There is a reason this is being referred to as "food security".

Monsanto, with its monopoly on seed corn and a proven record of getting legislation and regulations written to protect their business model, will not be willing to see their market edge disrupted, pitting a *lot* of money against changing regulations to allow back yard produce.

Whether Monsanto, the USDA, and the other big-farm bigots that hinder small and garden farming, must be confronted directly, worked around, or ignored, that bias has to be addressed. I just don't know how to start on the underlying resistance to change. I mean, resistance beyond the obvious NIMBY isolationists that want to keep a comfortable and clean smelling 1000 miles between dirt and manure, and their refrigerator.

I am glad to see your comments on composting barns, as "fuel" for a friendly debate with someone I know. We too have a barn that builts up a good few feet of layered hay/manure over the winter (it keeps the barn warmer, honest!) and gets dredged out into the compost pile in spring, to be distributed among friends and neighbors (and in one amusing case, across state lines to our friend in Philly. One Tote-O-Poop for you!)

It is a great value keeping such "waste" from being wasted.

You brought back wonderful old memories.

Back in the 80s, we bought an abandoned homestead/farm, and brought it back up to livable and productive use. One of my tasks was to empty out the old chicken barn. The previous owners had probably never bothered to clean it; the manure was several feet deep, even after a decade of draining and settling. (You should have seen the thistles around that barn!)

I've mucked out many a barn and stable since then, and actually enjoyed it, even when it was spring cleaning in the chicken coop, with chickens swarming around my feet racing each other for the grubs my fork uncovered. Smelly, goopy stuff, but the chickens made it fun.

But nothing compares to that experience with the old barn; the manure was sweetly fragrant, friable and light; a pleasure to dig, a delight to be in that quiet old space with the sun glinting through the cracks in the walls and our cat prowling the edges for mice. I trundled the manure in a wheelbarrow over to our new plantings and spread it along the rows. That garden was the best I've ever grown.

Growing up we had a couple hundred sheep (in addition to pigs and cattle). The sheep would lamb in late winter in the barn. They would spend most of their time in the barn and go outside when there was little or no snow cover. The manure would get about a foot deep. I agree with the others that it did keep the barn warn. Other advantages to waiting are that it is poor management to spread manure on frozen ground as it increases the liklihood of runoff.

Sharon you are being too hard on lagoons, particularly covered lagoons. Liquid manure that is direct injected into crop land is more environmentally friendly than is drier animal manure that is direct applied to the top of the land without any type of incorporation. The covered swine or dairy lagoon that you decry is more environmentally friendly than your method of manure use on a per lb of nutrient basis.

Mike, I don't think you are going to sell me on the lagoons - if nothing else, the fact that they leak and represent a massive hazard in heavy storms and flooding is sufficient to make the case against them.


Yeah, I used to live in a Big Hog state where every so often a lagoon would spring a leak and wipe out miles of life in the nearest creek. People downhill would wake up and find their yard a foot deep in liquid hog effluvia. Can't imagine why that never led to violence.

It may be that the fancy high-tech stuff Mike describes is the least environmentally destructive way of handling manure IF you take it as a given that it's being generated at a single site in such massive quantities. That's different from saying that it's environmentally friendlier under any possible circumstances. The way that the Midwest got itself a yard of high-quality topsoil was through animals eating the grass and pooping on top of the ground; that makes it hard to believe that top-dressing is somehow harmful no matter what the context and quantity.

Aw dewey, those coastal hog farm manure lagoon overflows foster Pfiesteria blooms, & Pfiesteria is one of my favorite organisms. It produces a toxin that binds to a receptor involved with communication between nervous & immune systems - a receptor so conserved that it exists in all animals that even HAVE nervous/immune systems. This is why a big bloom takes out everything from marine worms to mollusks & crustaceans to fish & people. An organism so cool that it can consume algae, digest all but the algal chloroplasts and use these to photosynthesize for itself, when there's not enough to eat. Who can object to pollution episodes that promote an organism as cool as that?!? ;)

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 05 Apr 2010 #permalink

I share your enthusiasm about composted manure Sharon! Thanks for a great post. I'm writing a thesis on energy capture from methane digesters right now, and I believe we'll be hearing much more about these contraptions in the coming years. Mike, they'll be a boon for your hog lagoons, (not that I can support such "farming",) but Dewey and Sharon are right-the concentrated manure is a huge problem both in terms of pathogens and the methane that is off-gassed into the atmosphere. While methane only hangs out in the atmosphere for 24 years, as opposed to carbon dioxide's 100 to 120, it is 23 times more powerful a pollutant than CO2 and is a huge concern in terms of climate change. The great thing about methane is that when it's collected, it's an extremely clean burning fuel that can be used like natural gas or LPG. Another of the many advantages to capping those manure lagoons and allowing methanogens to digest the raw material is that they kill off 99.94% of the pathogens present. The slurry at this point can either be safely spread on fields (with very little odor present,) or have the water separated out and be sold as an extremely good natural fertilizer. If the slurry or dried mass is then composted, this kills 100% of pathogens. Another great thing about this technology is that it comes in many sizes. The Chinese have been using small low-tech digesters for about 3,000 years and currently report having 15 million in use. Rural India is not far behind. Parts of Europe (and now the US) have been using extremely high-tech digesters for 40 years to digest human wastes in large cities and medium-sized mid-tech digesters in agricultural areas. The human waste is not recommended for fertilizer on food crops due to the amount of heavy metals in our manure. The energy from the methane powers the digestion plant, is cleaned and injected into the natural gas grid and in some cases is compressed and used to fuel public transport, (Sweden.) Here are some links for those of you interested in this technology:

Sharon, you talk a lot about humanure. Do you do it yourself? I would have expected some reference to you having a composting toilet but it wasn't mentioned in this article.

We just hit the same stumbling block as you. We've been getting all of our fertility from our neighbor's two horses and our chickens, but our garden has finally reached the stage that it needs more. We bought some compost this year as a stopgap measure, but we're exploring a lot of other methods for next year. One of my favorites is getting free produce discards from the grocery store on our weekly trip to town, then using it to grow black soldier fly larvae (free food for the chickens), with the "byproduct" of great compost.

I just read about black soldier flies this year --- if you want to read more you might check out…

Although, actually, as I think about it --- you might be too far north for black soldier flies... But it'd be great for folks further south, especially urban homesteaders!

Ed, yes, we do compost our humanure. We also still have a couple of flush toilets as well, since it freaks guests out ;-). I'll do a post about it at some point (and have done a couple on ye olde blogge), although I don't have much to say that isn't in Jenkins' Humanure Handbook. Ours is a simple, homemade version.

Anna, I'll have to look at that - I know about raising meal worms for chickens, but not soldier fly larvae.

Kylie, I've been hoping very small scale methane digesters would become available in the US for a long time - I don't have the skill set to build my own, but would be very intersted. I certainly think their role in China has been fascinating and important.


After one of my classes (parasitology), I can't help but wince at the thought of using human waste as manure. There's too much that could go wrong in terms of disease. Ick.

Closing the (huge) gap phosphorous cycle we've created though is an important and under appreciated issue.

A person has to be parasitized in order to pass on the propagules of parasites, Eugenie. The heat of decomposition will kill parasite propagules, if done properly. If you do it right, pathogenesis simply isn't an issue with composted human, or other animal, shit. Drug metabolites & heavy metals, on the other hand, are another matter.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 08 Apr 2010 #permalink

Sharon, don't you have to wait a full year before you can plant vegetables in the straw and manure from your chickens? I was worried uabout some of the uncomposted straw and had heard that fresh(ish) chicken manure can burn your plants. I've got bedding from the chickens from October-March waiting in my cold compost pile and I'd love to use it now if I can. I've run out of compost space - my new chickens' bedding took up a lot more room than I would have expected.