The Pitchfork Pulpit: Composting Livestock Manure

If you aren’t already composting your livestock’s manure for the garden or field, you’re missing out!

| February/March 2017

Anyone who raises livestock on a farmstead knows that much of animal husbandry revolves around properly handled manure. To be sure, manure is one of the greatest benefits of livestock, which is just as valuable as the milk, meat, or eggs that your animals produce. Unfortunately, farms rarely leverage manure assets to their full potential for fertilizer. Composting horse, cow, and chicken manure is one of the best ways to maximize the value of your livestock, and, with a little planning, the process can be an enormous benefit to your livestock and your soil health.

Growing up, my family always had a compost pile — kind of a glorified weed pile — next to the garden, but my manure management epiphany occurred as a teen. Our farm was a gullied, rock pile of poverty when my mom and dad purchased it in 1961. Thankfully, they were creative. Dad developed a portable electric fencing system and began rudimentary cattle rotation right off. He hauled in corn cobs from the local grain elevator (this was before combines) and spread them on the rocks. For winter feeding, we put up loose hay with an old-fashioned hay loader, using a grapple fork to unload it in the barn. Dad developed a V-slotted feeder gate that spanned the hay storage area so the cows could feed off the face of the hay. As they ate, we simply moved the long gate a few inches forward. This was certainly an easy way to feed hay, but it created a manure and urine buildup problem.

When the barn’s concrete floor became covered with several inches of manure, we’d pitchfork out the chaff and leavings that would collect in front of the hay gate, but that did little to absorb all the sloppy droppings. Throughout winter, we’d clean off the floor and spread the buildup on the fields with a manure spreader. To our surprise, the material that we spread in January did practically nothing to help fertility, but what we spread toward the end of the winter and in early spring — right as the grass greened up — delivered dramatic results. Same material, same field, different time.

Then, I got it: The dead-of-winter material couldn’t be metabolized by the dormant soil microorganisms, and it simply leached out or vaporized away by springtime. Capitalizing on the manure asset would require more strategic thinking about application timing, which inevitably necessitated storage.

Putting the manure outside would expose it to the same elements that robbed us of nutrients in the first place. Practically, the manure was too sloppy to compost, and besides, compost needs about 50 degrees Fahrenheit in ambient temperature to get started. The ideal solution was storing manure in place, protected from the elements, before composting. That meant we had to get more carbon into the animals’ lounge area.

Balance Nutrients and Microbes for Quality Compost

Good composting requires that we balance five things: carbon, nitrogen, moisture, air, and microbes. I’ve never had a problem getting enough microbes; if that’s an issue for you, you can always add some soil. Animal manures contain a multitude of microbes.

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