You’ve stepped in it. You’ve shoveled it. You’ve avoided it, spread it, and unwittingly carried it places where you wish you hadn’t. But if you’re smart about it and use it right, you’ll actually be thankful when someone bestows upon you a heaping pile of manure.
So valuable in a historic context is dung, that there’s a branch of science devoted to it. Coprologists (a paleontologist who studies feces) can learn a lot from studying dinosaur dirt (known as coprolites), including what the dino dined upon, his size, and where he lived.
For many animals, particularly predatory ones, scat is a calling card that marks territory and leaves information. Other animals most likely use what they leave behind as a sort of smelly GPS unit.
Dung beetles use manure as a nursery for their eggs, and African ovenbirds have even been known to make nests from it. Plants often rely on animals and birds to begin the germination process through stomach acids, or to cast seeds far and wide in a substance that comes with built-in fertilizer. And civet cats are highly prized for their seed-filled droppings, since that cat’s scat makes some very pricey coffee.
Some enterprising souls use dung in place of diamonds for jewelry.
Yes, indeed, it’s true that humans have had interesting uses for waste over the course of history.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past that many homes in North America were made of cow dung and straw or grasses; in some places in the world, that’s still the case. Dried cow flops, buffalo biscuits and camel crap still make excellent fuel when oil or gas isn’t available.
Hippocrates even tried a pigeon-dung concoction to cure baldness (think fertilizer), while ancient Egyptian women used gator goo as birth control and gazelle excrement as hair tonic (which makes you wonder who thought of these things and their true intentions). During the Vietnam War, faux tiger dung was used to camouflage U.S. radio transmitters. Dog droppings were once important in the leather-tanning process, and researchers are currently looking for ways to use excreta as medicine.
We know for sure that Chinese farmers were using manure as fertilizer more than 3,000 years ago, but it doesn’t take much imagination to think that earlier farmers recognized the use of crap for crops as well. By 800 B.C., the Greeks really had droppings down pat and knew exactly how much to use in various soils to make it usable for crops.
That’s because manure, in case you’re wondering, is filled with goodness. There’s phosphorous in it, which helps soil. It also contains nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium and a few other assorted nutrients. The basic make-up of manure can hold soil together. It also gives worms something to eat, which results in worm castings, a form of manure and one of the best additions to garden soil.
Just about any kind of manure will work for fertilizer. Clever zookeepers have sold elephant dung for ages (it’s said to be one of the best fertilizers around), and giraffe droppings are popular, too. Bat guano, once used during the Civil War to make gunpowder, is available for use in flower and vegetable gardens today, and rabbit raisins are said to be perfect for composting, as are horse hockeys. Waterfowl will foul your pond, but duck dung is good for fish and some of the shore plants (although it may cause problems if there are too many ducks in the drink).
But all these critter creations can quickly turn into a heck of a problem. One cow can produce 20 times her own weight in wet cow pies each year. A single hen lays not only eggs, but also a cubic foot of manure every six months, and an elephant leaves 200 pounds of waste on the ground each day. It’s been said that before the invention of automobiles, New York City had a serious horse manure crisis on its streets because the average pony deposits up to 30 pounds of road apples per day, and clean-up efforts were lacking.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that more than 330 million tons of dry manure (water removed) are produced each year by livestock in large farming operations, and it all has to go somewhere (preferably not into our water systems). Thankfully, ever-resourceful scientists are looking for ways to deal with it.
Digesters have been created to turn cow sludge into methane, which is used to heat homes. Engineers are trying to find ways to use dried manure to make packaging materials. At least one company uses elephant dung to make paper, and you also can find cute little statues made of dried excrement to give to your friends for their gardens. (Because what says “I Love You” more than manure?) Recycled animal waste can even be used as feed for other animals.
And lastly, in a “we’ve-come-full-circle way,” industries are learning that dried dung makes a cheap, burnable fuel for the manufacture of goods.
All of which means that the next time an in-law or jokester cousin tells you you’re giving them a bunch of manure, you might want to say you’re welcome!
Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.
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