Yesterday was manure-spreading day, one of the annual mileposts of the manure calendar. In winter our goats and sheep spend a lot of time in the pen next to our barn, where the shed shelters them from wind and snow. Their manure mixes with hay and they trample the whole mess into a thick, fecund mat. In spring we scrape it up and pile it near the vegetable garden to digest itself into useful compost. In late fall we till the garden and then spread the composted manure on the tilled ground. In spring we till it into the garden soil before we plant.
And yesterday was manure-spreading day.
Like most of the rituals on the farm, manure-spreading is an observance which attracts a diverse audience. Chickens are attracted to every manure-related activity. In winter when there’s very little around our yard for a chicken to scratch and peck, the fresh piles in the sheep pen provide rare, cold-weather opportunities. In spring when I scrape out the pen, it’s apparent that I uncover many, many items highly prized by the poultry palate. They swarm the pen and spend several days there, apparently dining on delicacies I’ve exhumed. When I mix spring compost into the garden I am, temporarily, the chickens’ favorite companion. They follow at my heels, up and down the rows, excavating tiny treasures from the newly tilled soil. And when I spread compost on top of the garden beds each fall, as I did yesterday, the chickens help out. They are out there right now, climbing over the little piles in the garden, kicking and pecking at the dry manure in search of tasty morsels.
Biologists tell me the chickens are foraging in the manure for weed seeds, insect eggs and all kinds of bugs. I read that they eat fly eggs and maggots, significantly reducing fly populations around large livestock. Once in a while I see one eat a beetle or an earthworm. Most of the time I can’t tell what they’re after. They scratch, they peck and they swallow. That’s all I know for sure.
Manure is almost as fascinating for the dogs. They run to smell it. If it’s fresh, they sometimes roll in it. On occasion, they are inspired to roll in fresh manure or the reeking carcass of a raccoon or a possum. If I see them do that, I’ll keep my distance for a few days. More often, I don’t know about the mischief they’ve been in until I pet one of them.
As I was spreading manure yesterday, Mop the border collie found something in the excavated mound that appealed to her culinary sensibilities. She ate several large mouthfuls from the middle of the pile and then ran over to give my wife, Carolyn, an affectionate lick. Carolyn declined the honor.
Guests have suggested that the omnivorous farm dogs must be malnourished. Otherwise why would they eat goat crap? But Mop had half a pound of lamb’s liver yesterday morning and she enjoys an unlimited supply of premium dog food. Her feeder is never empty. She’s glossy, happy, and by my estimate runs a couple of marathons on an average day. I don’t think she’s malnourished. I think she likes to eat crap. Sheep, goat, mule, donkey, horse, cow and, occasionally, cat or coyote crap appear on her menu. Her enthusiasm for manure is unmistakable. Likewise whole rats, dead buzzards and the pieces of dead turtles that a bobcat leaves behind.
It might worry me that they eat all that weird stuff — much of it nauseating to me — if our dogs didn’t generally lead long, healthy lives without much help from veterinarians. None of our dogs, so far as I can remember, ever died younger than 12. An adopted stray named Shelby, who lived to be at least 18, had an absolute passion for fresh peas from the garden and jackrabbits, which he consumed down to the last toenail and tuft of hair.
By coincidence, this morning’s New York Times included a piece by Paul Sullivan about the price of keeping pets. In his litany of financial horror stories was $1,250 Sullivan and his wife paid a Boston veterinarian to treat their dog when his intestines were “irritated” by a sausage.
It occurs to me that we may be comparatively complacent, here on the farm, when it comes to our dogs’ intestines, mostly because they live outdoors and mostly attend to their own digestive issues. Perhaps that’s just as well.
Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on Google+.
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Photo by Bryan Welch