Time To Haul Manure


From Gene Logsdon

I never knew why August was a good time to apply barn manure to farm and garden and Fall even better. We just did it then because there is usually a lull in other pressing farm work. Now I find out from the consensus of opinion among the experts on barn manure a century ago that we’ve been doing the right thing.

The reasons are rather long and involved, but I will try to give the short version of it. First of all, in Sane Farming, as distinct from Progressive Farming or Successful Farming or Business Farming or Profit Farming and the whole nomenclature of Forked Tongue Farming, livestock and chickens are out on pasture or free range applying their fertilizer themselves to the grass and clover during most of the summer and fall months. The farmer, unlike the proprietor of a animal confinement operation, only has to deal with the manure of winter and early spring.

To understand why this winter manure is a better fertilizer if allowed to age or rot for a few months in the barn  (a whole year would be better) before application, I had to forget everything I thought I knew about composting. Garden composting, or heat composting, as I call it, is speed composting, the idea being to let the compost heat up and break down the organic matter into humus as fast as possible. Also, the heat kills any harmful pathogens that might be in it. But in the process of aeration, a compost heap loses a considerable amount of its plant nutrients, especially nitrogen. The oldtimers called it fermentation. (If you doubt what I’m saying about the disadvantages of fast composting, you can find plenty of documentation in the literature— I like a sprightly-written book about human manure, The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins.)

Winter manure is stomped into what is called a “manure pack” in the barn by the animals as straw is spread on it regularly for bedding. It slowly composts  anaerobically,  that is without oxygen, so there is very little leaching or fermentation. And as little as  two or three months of  this anaerobic composting destroys most of the human disease pathogens, if any are present (very doubtful), say compost scientists. By late summer and early fall, that bedding  manure has cured, or aged, or in old-time parlance “rotted” properly. Most of the manure odor is gone too, replaced by a pungent earthy smell. The whole problem of odor which so plagues the animal confinement industry is avoided.

I have learned how to peel or pry layers off my sheep manure pack with a pitchfork. Each forkful is a little over a foot square and about two inches thick. I haul the forkfuls ranked on the back of my ancient pickup to the garden and place the “squares” on the soil surface much like laying down tile on a floor. Yes, sometimes I use my hands rather than the fork. The dry “squares” can be nestled up close to the plants because there is no ammonia leaching off to burn leaves as would be true with fresh manure. To be totally safe, I don’t put the manure up close to any lettuces or other salad vegetables. Manure not needed on the garden, I spread with my old manure spreader on the strips out in the pasture field where I plan to grow field corn the next year.

So today as I write in August, the whole garden except the sweet corn patch  is mulched either with this manure or leaves and grass clippings. My heavy weeding chores are over for the year. The corn shades the ground enough by now to stop any  vigorous weed growth except around the edges of the patch, which I can hoe easily enough. The grass and leaf mulch I like to use around vining plants like melons and cucumbers in July because as soon as the vines start trailing out all over the place, rotary tilling weeds among them is impossible.

By next spring, the manure will have sheet-composted away to humus.  The main reason I mulch part of the garden with grass and leaves is that I’m afraid if I treated all of it every year with this super-nutrient manure, the soil might get too rich. Is that possible?
~~

12 Comments

Hello Gene, I enjoyed your book immensely but I would appreciate it if you could discuss camelid manure in more depth, as I have alpacas.
Thank you,
Emily MacRae

I have no idea what anaerobic means, but I will tell you how we used to do it. We’d usually wait until the first frost, but usually before the ground froze to spread manure. This does solve the fly and aroma problem, but the real reason we did it that way was so we could get the corn shocked, let the fodder cure, and shuck the corn and pack the fodder off before we fertilized the field.

We’d haul another load in the spring. We figured as long as it got plowed under that it would be fine. Usually we’d get the second load out before the ground was thawed.

During the day, Our horses use the barn to get away from the horse flies and regular flies. It is dark and the flies don’t bother them. Sometimes during the day, they run back from the pasture to get away from the flies. After an hour, the older horse will stick her head out as to check for horse flies. It is really funny! Sometimes she ventures out and then will run back very fast as to say,”No way.”

Greg, yes we have trees in all our pasture plots.

Gene Logsdon Says:

“Greg, We used to have a lot of flies but now that I don’t let the animals in the barn at all during the summer and let the chickens roam the manure pack, no problem. The chickens do a real number on fly larvae.”

What about shade? Unfortunately, we do not have shade in the afternoon in the pasture. So, I let them go into the barn. I guess a portable screen might work.

Gene closed by asking, “… the soil might get too rich. Is that possible?” It is certainly possible to over-fertilize, though I doubt that anything you are doing with manure will cause the problem described below.

There was a lenghty (and good) front-page feature story in the Sunday ‘Detroit Free Press” detailing how industrial processing of food can result in contamination of ground water with heavy metals leached from the soil. The problem, as I understand it, starts with the idea of turning organic waste from processing into fertilizer for nearby farm fields by putting this waste into irrigation water.

The problem arises from using continuous fertilization as the only means of waste disposal, and concentrating this continuous fertilization on one or a few fields near the processing plant. The result is anerobic decomposition of the wastes, creating oxygen-depleted water, which leaches iron, manganese and arsenic out of the soils and into the water table.

The details, including an informative illustration, are available at:
http://www.freep.com/article/20090809/NEWS05/908090453

If you have any food processing plants in the vicinity of your farm, you might want to check on whether they are screwing up your ground water.

Greg, We used to have a lot of flies but now that I don’t let the animals in the barn at all during the summer and let the chickens roam the manure pack, no problem. The chickens do a real number on fly larvae. But you are right. On a large scale operation, flies can be awful. Flies have become the number one problem with large scale confinement operations and when they spread their manure with zillions of fly eggs in it, neighborhoods get really infested with flies.

What about flies?

I have been cleaning out our barn every week. We have 16 ewes, 29 lambs and 2 500 lbs steers that stay in the barn during the day. They have about a 30x20ft area. I was leaving it but the flies got so bad I started cleaning up more often. After a month of build up we found a lot of fly larvae. Since I have been keeping it clean the flies have died down a lot. I also put down some lime after cleaning and then some old hay for bedding. I think the steer pies are causing the fly problem. Sheep manure tends to break up and spread around more.

I have been piling up the manure and mixing it up with the loader now and then. Maybe not the best way?

Clive: I think it is a matter of aging. Surely an anaerobic pile should smell worse than an aerobic one and from hauling manure out of a shed where a hundred cows were housed, I know persnally that it will stink bad for awhile when you start scooping it out. But given several months (better a year if that were feasible) a manure pack two or three feet deep loses most of the bad odor. Here’s a quote from a 1912 book by Alva Agee, “Crops and Methods For Soil Improvement”: “There is a kind of fermentation in manure that goes on in the absence of air. It is due to bacteria that break up the organic matter, producing rotted manure. This is not attended by much [plant nutrient]loss and proceeds beneath the surface of the moist and packed mass. Manure properly controlled under a roof goes into prime conditon for spreading later in the season.” He says on another page that sometimes water needs to be sprinkled on the manure pack or this slow fermentation can change into “harmful” hot fermentation because, as you point out, some air can get into at least the top part of the manure pack. Agee also says on another page that “the composting of manure by gardeners is not a practice to be copied on most farms.” A rather outrageous quote, don’t you think? Obviously, I am going to write more on this.

Hi Gene, I’ve always enjoyed reading your posts. If I ever get a decent bit of land myself, this site will be one of the first things I turn to.

The one thing I don’t quite understand about this article is that the oldtimers call aerobic thermophilic composting “fermentation”, when the word means exactly the opposite. Fermentation specifically refers to metabolism under anaerobic conditions.

Are you sure that they were talking about letting the compost digest anaerobically? The reason I ask is that I imagine manure left over the winter, with plenty of straw in it would be pretty well aerated, even if stomped by the animals. Anaerobic digestion should produce a lot of ammonia as a byproduct, and should smell worse than an aerobic pile.

I would recommend composting the manure with Eisenia foetida (the most common composting worm). These worms were originally manure worms anyways; they don’t denitrify the compost as much as hot compost, and increase the cation exchange capacity of the finished product.

I found this year that my best soil was under the garlic, which was planted in fall and covered with ~6″ of leaves. It turned into a rich black loam swarming with earthworms. Everything else (composted but not mulched as heavily) looked great in the spring but by now looks like dust. I’m sure compost helps inoculate the soil, but when you don’t keep things consistently cropped and/or mulched, the soil dries up regardless of the amount of organic matter. As you’re suggesting, it seems like humus is only built in an anaerobic environment like under a log or cow pie. My rule of thumb – if it doesn’t look like a prairie or forest floor, keep piling on the dead stuff.

I really appreciate these posts sharing earlier farming wisdom. I do wonder, too, if soil can be too rich. I filled some raised beds with sheets from hay bales on the bottom, covered with compost. Each time I plant, the soil level had sunk quite a bit. The only thing I had to fill them back up with was composted leaves and chicken manure. Very rich! The leafy greens are going gang busters, but daikon radishes and carrots were mostly tops. I guess that’s more unbalanced than too rich, tough.

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