Fertilizer prices putting manure in the limelight


People talk about Peak Oil, but we’re also at Peak Fertilizer.

I never thought I’d see the day when shit — the bodily kind — would make headlines the way it is right now.

When my book about managing manure, Holy Shit, came out recently, erstwhile friends grinned and remarked, “You’ve been shooting the bull all your life so, sure, why not write a book about it?”

But this time what I’m writing is definitely not B.S. The current fertilizer crisis is real. Chemical fertilizer prices rise and fall with every change of pulse in supply and demand, but they are definitely on a long-term rise — not only because production and transportation costs are increasing, but because of anticipated shorter supplies in the future. People talk about Peak Oil, but we’re also at Peak Fertilizer. Without plenty of some kind of fertilizer, there will not be enough food to go around. The headline hype is not just overreaction from the press: recently farming news sources such as DTN were reporting all over their networks about how international traders in phosphorous and potash are elbowing for bigger chunks of the remaining fertilizer pie.

I would like to puff up and brag about how smart I must be to see this coming, but actually for anyone who has milked cows for a living like I have, it’s a no-brainer. Although I spent an awful lot of time in classrooms studying weird subjects like theology and anthropology, my real education began as a hired man for a dairy farmer in Minnesota, who was very astute and rather wealthy, too. He made money even though the bright boys at the university would say he was backward. He still used horses for much of his farm power, and he didn’t use any “bought” fertilizer. As a farm boy from Ohio who thought he knew a thing or two about farming, I was surprised to see how well his corn grew anyway.

My employer smirked when I said as much, and patiently explained to me that the gods of manure and legumes could keep a farm profitable by keeping the farmer independent of all those agribusiness suppliers who so much wanted to lead him to the poorhouse. Since then, my own experience milking a hundred cows has taught me the same lesson. Manure can be the key to real farming success. It not only fertilizes the crop but also builds organic matter, the secret to sustainable agriculture. As Edward Janus says in his new book, Creating Dairyland, in the days before chemical fertilizers, wheat farming nearly impoverished Wisconsin, until it became a leading dairy state.

“You might say that manure was the poop that saved Wisconsin,” writes Janus.

I firmly believe manure will be the salvation of the whole world in the days after chemical fertilizers run short. That’s why I call it holy.

Janus’ book also describes a very large dairy and cheese factory business that uses its manure to produce methane, generating enough electricity from it to power the business and some 450 residential homes. The amount of electricity generated is valued at $300,000, a very impressive number. The cost of producing those kilowatts, however, is not offered. In fact, from all the research I’ve been able to do, there isn’t any proof yet of profit-generating electricity from methane. But even if this idea does become profitable, what if the manure used is worth $300,000 for fertilizer, or even half that? Will we use such manure to make light bulbs glow or bodies grow?

Stories about holy shit are popping up all over the Internet. Last week, Treehugger reported that the Soil Association, a venerable organic farming organization in England, had just released a study concluding that we are approaching “peak phosphorus” as early as 2033. In addition, deposits of potash in Canada, our usual and handiest source of another necessary plant nutrient, are declining by all accounts. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer, the third of the big three plant nutrients, is manufactured almost entirely with natural gas, which has an increasing number of competing uses. Tell me: If you heat with gas, are your bills going down these days?

But I suppose the naysayers will have evidence that we have plenty of fertilizer left, just as they say that we have plenty of oil deep down in the bowels of the Earth, under the oceans.

The point is, no matter what, as population and the cost of business both rise, sources of chemical fertilizer will become harder to get at and more expensive to process and deliver to the farm. The value of manure will rise along with the price of chemical fertilizers but without nearly as much increase in their application costs. Throwing away billions of dollars of human and animal manure that could be used for fertilizer, plus who knows how much money spent in the throwing, is no longer a sane option.

One bright spot is that scientists have found a way to extract phosphorous from human sewage to use as fertilizer. But the method is expensive. Another alternative is using properly treated sludge directly on farmland, a practice that the National Academy of Sciences has twice approved.

But many farmers and environmentalists balk at the use of biosolids, pointing out that there is too much danger yet from sludge contaminated with pollutants that humans throw away down their toilets, including pharmaceuticals. And their point is well taken. We need to find a proper way to separate the manure from the heavy metals. However, culturally speaking, we are still victims of the flush-it-and-forget-it culture. If we can learn to live with our own human manure (and see the benefits from its proper application), we’ll realize we’re sitting on a gold mine. Literally.

The same problem will no doubt come from fertilizing with animal manures from large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations. It’s not as simple as taking crap from CAFOs.

However, while these operations couldn’t give their manure away a few years ago, now farmers close enough to afford the transportation costs are lining up to buy it, because it’s being sold cheaper than chemical fertilizers. If this practice grows, factory-animal manure will come under closer scrutiny, and well it should. Indeed, it bears its own risks because of the levels of antibiotics and other additions to the feed and insecticides used in the buildings and on the grounds.

In fact, I remember clearly about 15 years ago, soils on which poultry manure from large-scale operations had been spread were found to be so highly contaminated with copper — which if I remember correctly was being added to the chickens’ water. Farming had to be suspended on that land.

In other words, it’s not as simple as just taking the manure and spreading it. We need to know where the manure comes from, how it was treated, and what the lives of the animals that excreted it were like. Otherwise we’ll just encourage the production of poop on a massive scale, for production’s sake, reinforcing an agricultural system that doesn’t value animals, a healthy environment, or sustainability in any way.

The key is re-imagining our current system into something that values manure as the holy, healthful, fertilizing substance it is. Sustainable shit, in other words, is the only holy kind.


Thanks Gene, We’ll accumulate the pile this winter and use it to size the building and see if we can afford it. It’s the responsible thing to do because our pile area runs off toward a beautiful swamp – the sooner we get it under roof the better. I’m betting the runny nature of the scrapings will squish out the air and that a 6-8 foot deep pile under roof will be plenty anaerobic to compost quite well. I guess there’s no way to know the answer about nitrogen retention until we build the building, compost the manure, and have it tested. -EJ

Hi Gene, I’m looking for an answer I coudn’t quite find in Holy Shit!… I raise grassfed beef in northern Ohio. In the winter, I feed 30 cows (plus calves) hay in feeders on a concrete slab in an old trench silo. That way, they won’t make a mud hole around the feeder and I get some manure. (When they’re not eating, they roam the pasture and woods.) I routinely scrape the slab with a loader and pile the manure. There’s no bedding to absorb the liquids – the scrapings just settle into a pile of ~pure manure. Is it worth it for me to build a 3 sided building to store the pile out of the elements until late summer when it will be spread on hay fields, wheat fields, or pasture? Or…even thogh it’s covered, without a “pack”, would I still lose most of the nutrients to evaporation/lack of anerobic digestion? I’m asking about nutrients because I think the organic material remains useful whether the pile is covered or not. Thanks! EJ

    Eric, yes the organic materials will remain useful. You will lose a lot of the nitrogen but I am not enough of an expert to know if what you lose outweighs the cost of putting up a three sided building. Depends of course on the price of N. My opinion is that it would pay to put a rain shelter over the pile. Incidentally, I hear you clearly because when we were milking a hundred cows, we faced the same dilemma. A big pile of pure manure on the cement. We did not cover it. The manure runoff in heavy rains into the creek not far away was bad. We didn’t know any better. Gene

Michael Rendon, in my experience you can do all three ways you mention. A cbicken manure pack in my coop is not so much a pack, a packed down layer of manure, but a loose layer of litter. Where I use sawdust along with straw for bedding, the litter gets to be almost the consistency of sand. You rarely have to break it up because the chickens, scratching in it constantly, keep it loose. If you put this in a regular aerobic garden compost heap, the nirrogen in the mnaure will make the heap heat up faster and better, which means of course you are losing nitrogen. That’s not really a problem and in many cases is a plus. But I like to use it the way I use mulch directly in the garden. Gene

I have some questions.

I am a “garden composter” who has vegetable gardens in my backyard and recently (6 months ago) bought 4 hens. I have been building the “manure pack” and feel like I have that down, but wondering what next?

Holy Sh*t is great, but the parts about spreading the manure talks in terms of much larger scale, and it talks about not treating the pack like I would a “garden compost.”

So, would I mix a chicken manure pack into my regular garden compost, or break it up by hand, or mix it straight into my garden beds?

Any thoughts would be helpful. Thanks – Michael

Not to mention chicken litter currently contains arsenic, used as an antiparasitic drug. It’s going to be phased out within a few years– but really? Arsenic? And broiler litter’s been used as fertilizer all along.

Gene, agree with everything you say here. There is an old classic called, Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F.H. King, written 100 years ago about how the far East has maintained their soil fertility by utilizing human waste for manure. The old black and white photos are really cool, the text is informative, but a bit dry. I believe we are headed in this direction too. Particularly small farmers who have to maintain soil fertility and don’t have the room for horses or cows.

Thanks, Gene–I’m sure it was my fault for not being clear. Folks, if you haven’t already, it would be a good idea to read James Howard Kunstler’s book, “The Long Emergency”. He makes a very convincing case that our depleted oil reserves will not take us more than thirty-five years, and that’s with two major caveats: we have to be able to get every single drop out (we can’t, for a variety of reasons) and there cannot be any increase in demand/usage (highly unlikely). He does not think alternative energy sources will fill the gap because they are all dependent on oil for extraction/mining, metals, plastics and so forth. The book really made me rethink both my daily activities and my long-term strategies. The other good resource to understand peak oil issues is Sharon Astyk’s blog at Casaubon’s Book. The cold winds are starting to blow, but we have some time to prepare if we take these issues seriously. I certainly do!

Kate Heibner-Cobb, this Cow Power digester is similar to the one I mention in the blog. The best news in it, in my opinion, is that it can remove phosphorous from the manure to use as fertilizer. That means as far as fertilizer is concerned, this system can eat its cake and have it too to some extent and that would be wonderful. But I want to see the price tag and see it is is as ecomical as sprading well-managed manure directly on farm fields. On the whole, heating manure to generate methane for electricity is a very expensive process. You will note how much private and public money is being poured into this system. In the near future it might work out, with subsidies, but in the long run I still think that the fertilizer value of properly handled manure will be greater applied directly to the land than its value for methane generated electricity. The farmer will make more money hauling his or her manure to his land than to a digester plant. But certainly methane generation is better than just letting the manure wash into waterways. The bottom line to all the green energy ideas is that we as a society are going to have to use less electricity because the price of it is going to spiral beyond our ability to pay. Gene
Beth, I am sorry I misinterpreted you. You can cite anything you want on my blog including Wikileaks:) That is what this is all about, sharing information. Gene

Gene, I agree completely about not knocking other bloggers! I don’t think I was clear: I have read a couple of books and know of at least two bloggers who are talking day-to-day specifics about what happens when–in the relatively near future–the oil runs out. We may have time to prepare, and I wanted to share those resources with the folks who read your blog. But I didn’t want to do it without your permission. Hope that clears up any confusion I may have generated.

We’ve worked hard to switch our large ten acre ornamental garden, at work,to organic . Last year we applied “organic” chicken manure right on the lawns about a inch+ , they looked so great all year. But having my own chickens at home and horses, primarily for their manure.I’ve realized how expensive it is to buy organic feed for them. It finally occurred to me that the “Organic” chicken manure we were using so liberally at work probably was from CAFO chickens.This thought made me sick as I realized the exposure to antibiotics and other chemicals we were giving our garden and ourselves. These labeling laws suck.So much for consumer ethics, buying power.Is this happening with the majority of the “organic” fertilizers? Think of the bloodmeal coming from CAFO cows. Oh now that’s organic!

Of course there is also the chance that China sold fertilizer so cheap for a few years that now much of our fertilizer comes from there and that the local plants once shut down cannot reopen.
And not to be negative but I suspect that the large companies will become more vertically integrated (owning or contracting the means of production) and that medium sized conventional farms will be forced out.
Reduced competition is the desired goal by someone and I suppose that will happen sooner than later.

I’m wondering what Gene thinks of the new Cow Power Manure Digester to create power just opened here in the Madison, WI area. Here’s a link:
Thanks, Kate

Beth, I’d just as soon not knock other bloggers even if they deserve it. There is so much of that going on. Make your statements about that blogger on his or her blog.
Itis very hard in blogs short enough for people to read to cover everything even when the writer or commentor is trying to be fair, There will almost always be a YES BUT on every statement anybody makes. I am grinding my teeth right now because in this blog on fertilizer and shit, a righteous and very correct commentator insinuates that I am wrong about losing the manure when it is used to generate methane, pointing out that the manure is still there to use for fertilizer after the methane is made. Yes But. The manure slurry has already lost a significant amount of its plant nutrient value before it is used to generate methane. Afterwards, there is even less nutrient value. So really you can’t have methane and plant nutrients both without sacrificing a lot of the latter. Gene

Tell you what, folks, if you think Gene is right on in his discussion of shit and what happens when oil supplies run out for making fertilizer, (and I do think he’s right on), consider this. EVERYTHING–our transportation system, our ability to mine minerals, our industries (including the alternative energy stuff like solar and hydro), our water pumping systems and our heating systems, are all dependent on cheap oil. “Cheap” being a relative term these days. I have seen some projections that there will be NO oil within thirty-five years, and that’s assuming we could get every single drop of the remaining reserve out. Which we can’t, because it is getting too hard to extract and the oil is too poor in quality. And that projection assumes no growth in demand! I’m taking that to mean things are likely to get very difficult within ten years. I agree with Jerry that we should focus on the personal, in particular making sure that my family can survive in a world with no power except that which we make ourselves. I’m stockpiling my food, expaning my gardens, collecting animals to breed and planning a house that will not need electricity or natural gas. I’ve even got a root cellar lined out–we may actually wind up with two for our two families–and that is something you just don’t seen in California. Gene, I don’t want to be impolite on your blog by mentioning another author or blogger, so I won’t unless you say it’s OK–but there are some valuable reads out there on this subject. In the meantime, keep writing more good stuff like Holy Shit!

So you’re telling us the shit will be hitting the fan in the chemical farming business? They will just pass the costs along and all the techno-city folks will whine and tweet and twitter about the terrible rise in food prices. Never mind that they could spend a bit of techno-time tending a productive garden in their neatly manicured back yards to save some money. They will reap what they sow – nothing.

Although I grew up on a dairy farm, I never got hit with the profound beauty of the life cycle until I started raising chickens here. Using their poop in the garden gave me the finest yields of spinach and cabbage, some of which I fed back to the hens for eggs and more poop to yield fantastic corn and squash. Even the blueberries thrive with a bit of chicken manure and a heavy oak leaf mulch from the trees in the yard. Now that my small flock is getting older, egg production is off quite a bit, but I still thank my chickens for the poop they give me because it will give many other fine things from my garden next summer. The cycle in itself is a very holy thing, and unlike the pronouncements of organized religion that rely on ‘faith’, this holiness is real and physically evident every time we sit down for a meal.

Eddy’s farm policy makes a lot of sense for the larger society, but it’s chance for adoption in the real world is slim. Best to tend to the smaller unit of our personal lives and families in my opinion. My chickens poop. My garden grows. We are happy.

Gene–You’re a sly one for putting this post up right before the holidays, aren’t you? Love your writing. Your shitty book will be included on my Ag book wish-list on Monday. And I had already included it before I saw this post.

This is one of the reasons why we are not certified organic. You cannot be certified organic if you put human excrement on your soil.

Now that Mall*Wart has a burgeoning “certified organic” section, expect organic certification to become just one more segment of the industrial food system.

In Canada, you cannot even use the word “organic” (little – o) unless you are certified. What should we call ourselves? I like “beyond organic,” but there’s that illegal “o” word again…

So we’re just saying we grow according to the ethics and principles of Permaculture, and then whisper “beyond organic” when the government and the certifying body isn’t listening.

Not to worry, with C-46 passed in Canada and S-510 passed in the US, it is now illegal to grow or sell anything that is healthy at all! And there is now warrantless search and seizure if you’re caught growing “unapproved” product. Guess we’re all “underground farmers” now…

When I was a child a relative from the city happened to visit while we were hauling out the piled winter manure from our dairy farm. He said, “Whats that horrific smell?” to which my Dad answered, “Smells like money saved to me!” I have always remembered that wise old saw whenever we are hauling manure and citified people are turning up their noses. Manure is priceless to a farmer that values his soil.

Once again you’re ahead of the popular curve. Since manure is golden, we’d better start farming in Columbus and Washington D.C.
Easy pickings around those places.

Eddy, how dare you think ahead! What, you mean fossil fuels are actually a FINITE resource? Golly gosh jeepers, you can’t say THAT in public! At least not on Fox news. Or our useless congress. Sheesh.

In reality, Eddy, you’re dead on the money. Dead on. Sadly, our blind “business as usual” leaders can’t see past their next election (or payout) to do what’s right for the American long run. Thus, I’d better keep organically growing food without asking permission from the government, etc…

My understanding is that Phosphorus is the first critical resource that will hit “peak” production. The USA was a major producer for many, many years and it is past peak now. There are few islands in the Pacific that were also big producers that are tapering off also.

I suspect that phosphorus prices will increase so much that it will be economical to process it from human waste streams. This will just raise the input costs for agro business. This factor by itself will not kill agro business.

Potash has huge mines in Canada that can still produce for many decades to come.

Nitrogen is going to be a factor eventually. It all depends on how much natural gas displaces oil and coal. Natural gas is dirt cheap right now, and can only go up. ditto for nitrogen fertilizers.

right now Ethanol is what is making agro business boom. it is taking 30% of the corn crop and threatens to devour more of it! That is downside. The upside is that these corn crops are really USA corn reserves. If food shortages appear, these ethanol acres can and will be used for food instead of fuel.

A better farm policy would be to:
(1) end the ethanol subsidy.
(2) reduce the acreage of corn by 30 percent by letting the ground go fallow or pasture.
(3) Raise the price of gasoline via taxes so that consumption falls by 10 percent.
(4) put the new tax money into rail.

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