I'll get down to it straight away, manure management is pretty important on a farm, whether it is a small holding or a mega farm. Since I know nothing about mega-farms, I’ll just talk about small farms and maybe even urban farms where livestock are kept. From most places I visit either in person or via blogs and websites, I get the impression that manure is, as we’ve long been told, a liability or something to be rid of. It’s probably one of the most wasted resources we have today, but no one pays any attention, either being stuck on free-range as the end-all for keeping animals or that poop is icky.
There’s tons of information out there on how to capture all the nutrients that come your way on the farmstead by the way of manure and urine, even some on this here blog. But one thing I see quite often overlooked in the way of farm planning is that most of the livestock is running willy-nilly together on even “ecological” farms. Most cite that nature has all the animals mixed together. So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that there isn’t too much nature abounding on most small farms or in urban yards – since farmers and fences began confining animals, things are not the same. It’s natural, but it’s not nature… .
There is so much E-I-E-I-O in all of our childhoods that we think nothing of having all our livestock together or free-ranging all over the place. There is an order to things, and all manure is not created equal in terms of who benefits from ingesting it and who doesn’t. For instance, there are many enzymes in cow or ruminant manure that are good for poultry and pigs. But despite modern practices of feeding chicken manure to feedlot cattle, it isn’t good for cows to eat chicken manure even when it has been cooked into a Swanson dinner for them. Yuck! Chickens roosting on hay and in feeders is not good for cows. No manure is actually beneficial for a cow to ingest, even cow manure. It’s easy to get
lazy complacent when we have wormers and antibiotics at our disposal to make up for our bad habits. But just a little change of management on our end will allow our animals to be healthy without pharmaceuticals. Imagine that. Livestock that we eat not getting sick before we eat them. It doesn’t get much more nutrient dense than that. Don’t get the wrong idea, pharmaceuticals have their place, but if we use them too much, we take the risk that when we really need drugs, they will not be as effective because we have relied on them too much in our management plans.
Still confused about who follows who and why manure isn’t all the same? Think about your freezer that you have so carefully stocked all season long. Hopefully you read a post I wrote in 2008 about the order of things in your freezer. If you didn’t, here is a brief overview that is a perfect analogy of the order of manure and the order of freezer filling. I freeze berries, vegetables, beef, pork and chicken in my freezers. If the freezer thawed out for some untold reason, I would really be upset if I got berry juice on my steak packages, but I could rinse the purple off and cook the meat without a second thought. However, if my meat packages leaked on my berry packages and blood got mixed in with my berry juice, I would throw away the berries and not eat them. Same with the meat, I don’t mind eating raw beef that I raised, but I would never eat raw pork or chicken that I raised, so if the chicken thawed and blood leaked onto my beef packages, I would be leery of the beef and make sure it always got cooked. I would not be so worried if beef blood got on my chicken or pork. So you see we can’t just lump all manures and all foods together in their own groups, but while they are all manures and foods, they should not be treated the same. Many disorders in cattle are caused by manures (their own or other species) coming in contact with their feedstuffs, or their housing. These conditions, while common these days, are not the way it has to be. If you’re seeing chronic infections, such as scours, mastitis, coccidiosis, e. coli, salmonella or even parasite infections, look to your manure handling or lack of handling practices. Many times illnesses such as these cause people to draw the conclusion that the manure has to “go away” because it is causing the problem, when really it is the management of the manure RESOURCE that is causing the problem.
Deep bedding with the proper carbon to nitrogen ratio does not smell and poses no threat to livestock. During the normal winter feeding period, our bedding may be anywhere from 2′ to 4′ deep. Instead of daily cleaning, we do daily bedding. A lot less work, and it ties down the nutrients. For the record, I am against outside sacrifice areas without a deep bedding system in place. Build a shelter and design it for the ease of cleaning with equipment in mind. If you don’t own heavy equipment, you can rent it by the day and make your life easier.
Capturing chicken manure is a little easier than with larger livestock. Lightweight and easy to clean by hand, no equipment needed here except a 5 tine pitchfork, wheelbarrow and faithful companion. Most people only think of eggs when they are contemplating chickens; please consider that they can provide you with enough fertilizer for you garden too, but not if they are free ranging all the time. Garden not lush and productive? Confine those chickens a little. Don’t want to confine them? Then don’t complain about environmental problems when you most likely are bringing in compost or fertilizers for your garden that comes from somewhere else when you have the means at your pitchfork tips to make a difference.
During the grazing season, we make the cows deposit their manure where we want it. In the pasture. Not in the woods, or in the same place all the time.
If you’re just in the planning stages for adding livestock or if you are having mysterious illnesses crop up now and then, maybe some of these tips will help.
♣ Design mangers and feeders for eating, not sleeping. Meaning cattle should have only head access to their feed manger. No calves, goats, sheep, chickens, etc., should be able to sleep or walk on the feed area. It works the other way too – don’t let cattle have access to low sheep or goat feeders either. And if you’re feeding on the ground, pick a clean area each day. Every day you throw hay or grain out in the same old place because it is convenient, you’re risking the chance that your stock may ingest some manure with their feed, and then pretty soon you are relying on medications to pull you back out of the abyss.
♣ Don’t allow poultry to roost in the haystack – while a little bit of chicken or turkey manure may not hurt, clean feed is important; it was clean when you put it in the barn, keep it that way.
♣ Water systems are important too – with animals all confined Old MacDonald-style, you have to have low water troughs for the shorter animals and this makes it much easier for manure from taller animals to make its way into the water trough. Not good. Put your mind to work, and think of clean ways to deliver water to your stock. And as a side note, a hose hooked to a water trough float is a quick way to contaminate your house water supply. Install a backflow device to alleviate that.
♣ Have separate tools for cleaning and feeding. Pitchforks and shovels should be designated for feedingor cleaning, not both. Besides, a manure fork is near impossible to use to pitch much hay and vice versa for a hay fork in the manure pile. Most people would never dream of using the toilet brush to scrub the kitchen sink, it’s the same in the barn. Right tool for the right job.
♣ The most susceptible to parasites and/or illness are the young stock, make sure they have clean places to be born, and clean places to sleep and you can avoid many problems.
Hopefully, this isn’t too confusing. Manure is the asset that is the most overlooked on farms large and small. The more you have, the better, but in the wrong place it can be a liability and it doesn’t need to be.