Manure: Worth Its Weight in Gold
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Wren Everett Ask anyone what the most valuable product from livestock might be, and you’ll get a list of delectable answers like eggs, milk, or meat. But for the modern back-to-the-lander or gardener seeking self-sufficiency, the true answer may be a bit more basic and a lot less appetizing: manure. Yes, that stinky, straw-laced stuff that needs to be mucked out, scooped up, and scraped off may be the most important thing our animals contribute to our land. You may think I’m waxing hyperbolic, but I hope to convince you otherwise.
The Nutrient Cycle
In many of the wild places of the earth, nutrients go through a closed loop, much like the water cycle. The beginning and the end is the soil, where plants grow, where they are eaten, where droppings land, and where dead material collects. In a healthy system, fertility is never removed. Instead, because of the recycling work of microscopic life in the soil, it is maintained or steadily increases, allowing both plant and animal life to thrive in their season.
In our agricultural past, there have been cultures that understood the value of the soil and the nutrient cycle. Farmers of Forty Centuries is a record of one such case, a fascinating portrait of 19th-century farming in Japan, China, and Korea. Farmers in those areas were able to maintain fertility on land that had been farmed for thousands of years by scrupulously collecting and returning nutrients — compost, manure, night soil, and canal dredgings — to soil that could have been otherwise depleted by their constant activity.
In the recent past, the cycle has been broken into disassociated bits. Wasted food is sent to landfills, feedlot manure is shoved into stinking containment ponds, toilets flush to sewage treatment plants and waterways, and leaves are piled in plastic bags at the curb. Modern culture continues to eat food from plants and animals, of course, but we have largely forgotten (or never learned) how to return nutrients to the soil like we once did.
On your land, that doesn’t have to be the case. If you have animals by your side, a garden, and a desire for self-reliance, you have all the pieces needed to put the loop back together.
Securing the all-important harvest
The first order of harvesting manure is laying down all-natural bedding. Thankfully, bedding options are vast and aren’t simply constrained to the plastic-packaged bales at the feed store. Pretty much any organic (and by “organic,” I mean it in both the carbon-based and not-sprayed-with-chemicals meanings) material will do. Dried grass clippings, fallen autumn leaves, hulls and shucks from grain processing, waste hay and straw are likely the most widely available.
Second, merely allow animals to do what they do best: poop. You can then lay down fresh bedding regularly if you opt for a more deep-bedding method, or remove and replace it as needed to control odors and flies.
Third, and most importantly, always have a designated, useful location for the soiled bedding. Some will need to be placed in a compost pile for a year or so (more on that soon), while others can be applied immediately to the land as a nutrient-dense mulch or tilled in as an amendment before planting. This nutrition allocation is best done as soon as the areas have been mucked out, to prevent the ubiquitous manure monolith that grows behind so many barns.
Fourth, lay down fresh bedding and keep the cycle flowing.
Not all manure is made equal, so here are some tips on how to manage some common droppings.
Rabbit, Goat, Horse, Cow, and Sheep Manure
These herbivore poos are thought of as rather “cold,” meaning they generally need no further processing and can be applied to the gardens or around trees as soon as you have harvested them. Horse manure can contain living weed seeds, however, so it is wise to compost it before application.
Now, even when soiled, some mammal bedding can tend to be quite dry. I found that reusing it as bedding for waterfowl will moisten it thoroughly and allow it to decompose more efficiently.
Chicken, Pigeon, and Guinea Manure
The manure from these birds is “hot,” meaning it is so rich in nitrogen that it can overwhelm plants if applied fresh. Age or compost it for at least a winter, if not longer, to make it safe to spread on your food plot.
I keep rings made of woven wire fencing around my poultry houses and fill them throughout the year. Once a ring is full enough, it gets capped with a layer of soil and left to sit through the winter. Come spring, I use them as raised beds for hungry plants like tomatoes, eggplants, or squash.
Duck and goose droppings are closer to “cold,” meaning you don’t need to compost them and can, instead, apply them straight to your plantings. I use goose bedding as one of my main garden mulches and have found it to be a truly excellent layer in a hügelkultur mound.
I know the thought may be a bit shocking at first, but human manure is also a great source of land fertility and one that we produce regularly, like it or not. Humanure requires at least a year (or two) of composting before being spread on the land for sanitary reasons. The specifics of building a humanure processing system are beyond the scope of this article, but Joseph Jenkin’s Humanure Handbook, free online (https://humanurehandbook.com), will give you as much detail as you could possibly need.
Before you completely write this one off, bear in mind that you may already be buying human-sourced land fertility and just not realize it. Some fertilizers, often sold under catchy names like “Dillo Dirt” or “Milorganite,” are the processed sewer solids from municipal water sources. Furthermore, that same biosolid fertilizer industry is utilized extensively by conventional crop farms … meaning the veggies and fruits you buy at the supermarket were very likely grown with human poo.
If you had a choice (and we all do) I imagine most folks would rather use their own waste than the collective excreta of a city of strangers.
As I often say, to waste waste is a waste! I hope that these ideas and tips help close the nutrient cycle on your own land, leading to more frugal living, richer harvests, nutritious soils, and healthy residents, both animal and human.
Originally published in the November/December 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.