Manure More Precious Than Gold

From Gene Logsdon

I half-jokingly suggested about a year ago that animal manure— used livestock, horse, and chicken bedding— was going to be the hottest commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade. There are indications now that such a seemingly absurd prediction might not be so absurd after all. Last year the prices of some farm fertilizers shot up to over a thousand dollars a ton. Ammonium polyphosphate is still nearly that high. Deposits of potash in Canada, a main source of our potassium fertilizers, are declining. Natural gas, from which commercial nitrogen fertilizer is manufactured, is rising in cost as other uses compete for it. Long term, there are reasons to believe that the era of abundant manufactured fertilizers is passing.

There is nothing funny about that prediction. Nor should organic farmers feel vindicated. If we run out of commercial fertilizers, there would be no way we could avoid a precipitous decline in crop yields while farmers switched to all-organic methods. It has taken us a couple hundred years to reduce the organic matter content in our soils to the low levels of today and experts say it might take at least half that long to build them back up again. Getting enough manure and other organic wastes to make up for a shortage of commercial fertilizer would be an enormous challenge requiring changes not only in agricultural attitudes but cultural attitudes as well.

It is however difficult to suppress a smile at the irony of the situation. For years shit has been seen as something so repugnant that the word itself was scrubbed from polite conversation. One of the main reasons for the ancient prejudice between urban and rural cultures was that before Fels Naptha, the odor of manure lingered on the skin and clothing of farmers. To become truly civilized came to mean escaping the barn and pretending that offal was not a part of life. Make it disappear. Flush it down the toilet.

The predominantly urban society of today has energetically (and with good reason) opposed modern gigantic animal confinement operations because of the stench of manure. The confinement operators would like to suppress or mask the smell but to make money, they must house continuing larger numbers of animals cheaply. That makes pollution problems inevitable. Larger animal factories can generate as much waste as the human sewage from a large metropolitan area but, unbelievably, they do not have to handle and treat their sewage the way municipalities do.

So the operators haven’t been able to get rid of the stuff cheaply at a fast enough pace. They offered it free to farmers. Not enough farmers were interested. They put it in huge lagoons that overflowed and polluted the landscape. They tried, and are still trying, to make fuel out of it. Not yet practical enough. They sometimes tried to leak it out unnoticed into the waterways, only to be caught and fined by the manure police.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. With no assurance that grain prices will be high enough to cover the high prices of manufactured fertilizers, farmers are waiting in line at the animal confinement operations, willing to fork over good hard cash to get the lower-priced manure. The laugh of the day now is that maybe manure will become more profitable than the food produced, that the operations will become, in fact and not in jest, money-making manure factories which just happen to produce meat, milk, and eggs as byproducts. This seems particularly possible since some of these factories change hands about as often as partners do in a square dance.

The possibility that all of agriculture might have to rely on animal and human waste to maintain the necessary fertility to keep the world from starving is not at all something new to civilization. Only in the last century or so has it been possible to lard enough chemical nitrogen on cropland to attain record breaking yields while burning most of the organic matter out of the soil. Before this modern “progress,” human society had no other choice than to consider manure— animal and human— to be more precious than gold. At least humans did so in countries that sustained an ample food supply for very long periods of time, as China and Japan did. We all need to read again Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F.H. King, published in 1911, about oriental agriculture at that time. Manure was treated like a precious gem because it was a precious gem. Every scrap of animal waste, human waste, and plant residue was scrupulously collected, composted, and reapplied to the land. So precious was manure that Chinese farmers stored it in burglar-proof containers.

As a result, the oriental farmer for thousands of years maintained an unbelievably productive agriculture. Their little farms produced at the very least five times the amount of food per acre that American farmers were getting in 1907 when King traveled through Japan and China. Those yields still far exceed those of American agriculture even today, except where intensive, raised bed gardening is practiced here. For all practical purposes, a large part of China in 1900 was one huge intensive, raised bed garden. Indeed, the oriental farmer had no choice, because population densities were much higher than anything the United States had or has yet experienced. They either produced huge crops or starved.

Cheap, plentiful manufactured fertilizers and a seeming infinity of farmland allowed the United States over the last two centuries to become the champion wastrel of agriculture (and everything else). One can only imagine the famine and chaos that would result if we continued that kind of extravagance for forty centuries, even if we could. As sources of cheaper chemical fertilizers decline, manure will either once more become the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or population levels will dramatically decline.
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15 Comments

Mr. Logsdon,
I’m back finally, thank you for the reply. The other person was concerned about the natural chemicals in the locust. I am on thin soil over limestone with stone outcroppings. I would love to grow some food plants and get my hands in the soil more. I had thought if I could get someone to build them for me I would be able to care for them, but I hadn’t thought about the drying quickly. I think that is more than I can handle now that I am in my 70’s I have to stop and rest after ever few steps, then take a few more, then stop and rest, etc., you get the picture… it isn’t pretty. Oh, well, it was just a thought. Some locust was available, but the more I think about it I think I better not – chemical danger or no. I didn’t know any other organic gardener to ask. Thank you for your thoughts on the subject.

Thanks, Gene. I’ll be careful. I’m going to sit down and try to detail all the procedures, go over them 2-3 times, and run them past the local extension people before I do anything.

Sorry to hijack a thread that was supposed to be about manure, but I guess if “all flesh is grass,” then all grass can be manure, at least on my 5 acres.🙂

Ivan, I don’t want to sound alarmist because I don’t think there is any danger in what you are proposing to do. Just remember that green silage in large amounts in a regular sealed farm silo, emits a poisonous gas. I don’t think you would have any problem with sacks or barrels of silage, but say you put it in plastic bags and sealed them, so the gas can’t get away, don’t stick your head in that sack and breathe deeply. Gene

Hi Kerri:

Thanks for the info. I had already seen the link for the Spring 1950 issue of Farm Quarterly, and being a heavy library user, had already explored my local library system’s databases for Farm Quarterly. No luck there, but I sure can try NCSU if I need to.

But I’m going to take Gene at his word that there’s little more in the Seiden article than what he had already excerpted. At some point, thought and planning must turn to action.

I have a large lawn. The only thing that makes it a lawn is that I keep it mowed. It’s mostly quackgrass and dandelions, with tiny patches of white clover. I’ll be looking to seed a little — not too much — more white clover. Penn State (my alma mater) says mow first, then broadcast — and once it is established, I’ll let it get about 4″ high, and then I’m going to mow it, wilt it, and pack me some silage, using Seiden’s recipe, and we’ll just see how it goes.

I’m thinking that if I mix the silage in the barrel as Seiden recommends, then store it in small bags as outlined here, and then in supersacks, I could produce some good winter fodder for my hens and reduce my feed bill.

If I actually do this and not just talk about it, I’ll share the results.

Ivan,

North Carolina State University claims to have issues between 1946 and 1972 of Farm Quarterly. Andrews University in Michigan has 1962-1972. Several universities seem to have various issues of Farm Quarterly in their Special Collections. And the Spring 1950 edition of Farm Quarterly is for sale!

http://www.goantiques.com/detail,farm-quarterly-magazine,756406.html

My suggestion is to start at your local public library and see if they can find local colleges and universities with back issues. It’s unlikely that any of those places will actually loan out an issue (they’ll often make copies of articles for a small fee or sometimes for free) but if it turns out that a place nearby has real for real paper copies, then you should plan a lengthy visit to read them.

Unfortunately, no libraries in Alaska have any copies of Farm Quarterly. This seems a bit odd since the University of Alaska Fairbanks was originally established as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in 1917. Perhaps the agriculture information in Farm Quarterly wasn’t particularly useful in Alaska? Actually, I think that must be it. I’m constantly finding information in this blog that just won’t work/can’t happen in Alaska. No offense, Gene; but at latitude 65 N, things are different than they are at 40 N. It’s certainly been a challenge figuring out what *does* work in these parts. Particularly trying to farm a tiny little urban yard.

Kerri in AK
proud alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Services (MLIS ’04)

I remember growing up in a small Kansas town where the cattle yards and slaughter house ruled the scent of the land. One end of town smelled like cattle, the other end smelled like soy beans. People always complained about the amount of sulfur released by the cows, but they never complained about the abundance of crops every year thanks to the ‘stench.’ I never minded the cow smell, the soy bean silos made me gag every time I walked by though. Now here I am in ‘big city’ Kansas and buying my organic manure compost by the bag.

Ivan, I don’t know where you can get back issues of Farm Quarterly magazine. It is the best farm magazine ever, in my opinion, and I am not proud that working for Farm Journal all those many years ago, I helped drive FQ out of business. It was a reader’s magazine yet full of great illustrations—everything a magazine should be, which is why it couldn’t compete with the punchier Farm Journal whose mindset was that a farmer wouldn’t read more than three minutes at a stretch. Farm advertisers would not support FQ. I write a lot about FQ in my book, The Mother of All Arts in case you are interested. Some library some place has to have bound back issues. Try land grant universities like Ohio State. The magazine was published out of Cincinnati. As for the article on grass clippings for chickens, it doesn’t say much more than what I reported in my book. Gene Logsdon

Hi Gene:

Now that I am “retired,” haha, I’ll be getting back into raising two beef every two years, 16 hogs from fall to spring, and laying hens in chicken tractors on a four-paddock rotation on my five acres in Western WA. Each paddock is + or – 1 acre.

I agree, the manure is like gold. My plan is to have a 4x4x4 “cube” in each paddock made of 4 frames of 2×4 and tied horse fencing, lashed together with scrap electrical wire “twist ties.” The compost from these would fertilize the fruit and nut trees in the pastures, and/or the vegetable garden.

To turn the compost, I just dismantle the “frame” and assemble it again a foot or two away from the pile, which stands up just like a big layer cake, then fork the compost back into the reassembled frame. I have been composting this way for about 35 years now.

If there’s more manure than those can handle, I am also renting space to local vermicomposters, who use it to produce high quality bulk compost, and even higher quality castings, which they sift, bag, and sell to local retail outlets.

I just finished reading “All Flesh Is Grass” from the local library, and I liked it so much I bought a copy from Powell’s. Thanks for that. I have been reading your stuff on and off for years, with great pleasure.

I was struck especially by your discussion on Pages 233-235 of Rudolph Seiden’s method of making silage for poultry from slightly wilted grass clippings and molasses, and I wondered where I could get my hands on that Autumn 1950 Farm Quarterly article. My local library system doesn’t seem to have access to it, even electronically, and Seiden’s other books, which I went out and got, don’t mention it.

I have access to all the free 55 gallon HDPE drums and grass clippings I can get, and using the “small bag silage” methods that the FAO developed in Asia, I could put up a LOT of chicken feed right off my lawn.

If you could shed some more light on this subject, I would be grateful. Thanks for the opportunity to contact you, and thanks for your great work over the years.

I wonder if your friend means chemicals added to black locust to keep in from rotting or chemicals just naturally in the wood. You don’t have to treat black locust as it will last a long time without any treatment. However, black locust, at least the leaves, are somewhat toxic to animals, so the books say, but I have seen grazing animals around black locust with no bad effects. I seriously doubt that black locust lumber would affect your raised bed soil in any deleterious way, but I do not know for sure.
My question is: why raised beds? If you have good soil naturally in your garden, or soil that can be made good with organic methods, you don’t need raised beds unless your soil is very wet in which case drainage tile is the better answer. Raised beds are oh so popular, but are unnecessary in normal situations and with them, you must irrigate in dry weather more so than with unraised beds. Gene Logsdon

I try to use organic methods in my garden as much as possible. I have an organic gardening question: I was considering raised beds made with black locust, but another woman said she used cedar because of the chemicals in the black locust. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Kyle, thanks for saying something nice about Last of the Husbandmen. All my life all I really wanted to do as a writer was write novels. I finally got ahead of the game enough to be able to afford the time but many of my readers have a hard time accepting a kind of writing that is at least sometimes, quite different from my non-fiction.

Jan, Do you think people will ever see the light? I like the old saying that humans will only do the right thing when they have no other choice. I suspect that is true more often than not.

One more thing: your photo says “Organic… Composted Manure”, but then mentions the NPK additions, in very small amounts.

First off, it seems anti-organic to have artificial fertilizer mixed with something called “organic,” and secondly, why is this deemed necessary?

It seems the miniscule amount added (“0.5-0.5-0.5”) would boost the natural levels of these nutrients in the manure by only 20% or so. (I seem to remember composted manure is worth about 2-2-2 or so…)

Any thoughts on these points?

I’m so glad you tactfully mention “animal and human” in a couple places. The way we treat this valuable resource is wasteful and disgraceful. With a large amount of the basic productivity of North America being run through human digestive tracts at some point, it is imperative that we return these borrowed nutrients back to the earth, instead of treating them so they will no longer sustain life, then flushing our precious phosphorous (and other nutrients) into the ocean.

Until we can eliminate the word “waste” from our vocabulary, we’re going to have some tough times ahead.

While I prefer the smell of an indoor toilet to an outhouse, I’ve often thought of sacrificing our 2nd bathroom for a composting toilet. All that good food gets flushed, treated, sent downriver and turned into drinking water for some other town – instead of staying at home as free “night soil” for my fruit trees. And my wife doesn’t think my neighbors would appreciate the site of me crapping directly into the compost pile.
– In Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” he describes a time in Japanese culture when it was considered impolite to be invited for a meal without depositing the unused contents of said meal outside before leaving.
– Mr. Logsdon, I finally read your “Last of the Husbandmen.” What a great and touching story. The Wendell Berry “eulogy” was quite appropriate, as you’ve done more than your fair share to ensure the dead don’t die that “second and more final death.” I think in time enough people will be ready to go back to real work, real food and real living. When that time comes, your books and articles will be a gold mine of technical and spiritual instruction.

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