Composting Livestock Manure Creates Black Gold
The best fertilizer comes from a combination of organic material, including livestock manure.
Composting manure creates black gold for your garden.
Photo By iStockphoto/Burwell and Burw
In the post-World War II rush to the “Green Revolution,” farmers and gardeners alike looked to inexpensive synthetic fertilizers to keep their soils producing, while largely abandoning methods of old. In less than a single generation, manure became more of a disposal issue than the blessing earlier agriculturists knew it to be. Today, with the rising costs associated with producing food, manure is once again looked upon as a valuable resource. For the home gardener and market gardener, it remains one of the best options.
Most gardeners know, or should know, that compost is like black gold for the garden. Being essentially organic matter — once alive and drawing nutrients from the ground — when the material in a compost pile has been broken down into rich humus, it can then return those nutrients to the soil to add fertility and structure to the growing medium.
Now, what if we could let animals participate in the process? When ruminant animals consume their feed, they break down the cellulose structures in the plant to release the nutrients within. Only a part of those nutrients are used by the animal, the rest pass through and are contained in the waste products along with plenty of organic matter. For instance, in cattle, approximately 75 percent of the nitrogen (N), 80 percent of the phosphorus (P), and 85 percent of the potassium (K) found in forages pass through the animal to remain in the manure and urine. This manure can be spread in fields or turned into garden soil, or simply added to a compost pile to simmer a while before nurturing the garden.
As with all soil amendments, there are things to keep in mind and precautions to take when fertilizing with manure — all in order to ensure the best results and food safety. Most manures, and particularly those from poultry, are too strong or “hot” to be put directly into use in the garden, and all manures have the potential to carry harmful pathogens from the animal that produced it. The methods below allow anyone with a few chickens or even a few head of cattle to produce safe and rich fertilizer for their gardens.
Composting livestock manure
For most small-scale applications, thoroughly composted manure that has decomposed in a hot compost pile is the best and easiest way to make sure your manure is safe for the garden.
When I say a hot compost pile, I mean one where a good 2-to-1 ratio of dry brown materials — such as wood shavings from bedding or dry straw — to green organic material — in this case the manure — has been evenly mixed, kept at proper moisture levels, turned to aerate regularly, and allowed to reach its maximum internal temperature for a number of days. This is often called cooking, as the temperatures in an active compost pile can regularly reach 120 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. That high, prolonged period of heat in the manure compost will serve to both sterilize any weed seeds that may be in the manure and to kill off potentially harmful pathogens, such as E. coli or Salmonella spp, thus producing a bounty of well balanced and biodynamically rich fertilizer.
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