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Using Manure" Wisely"

Question. Mike: I have manure available to me—horse and chicken—and am wondering how to best use them as fertilizer. Both are mixed with bedding material (straw and pine shavings). Do I have to compost this, or can I put the manure directly onto the garden? And do I need to add any other fertilizer to balance it out? I know manure is high in Nitrogen, and I don't want to end up with a lot of lush greenery and no flowers! Thanks.

    ---Lena in East Hampton, Connecticut
Mike: My spouse and I are setting up a veggie garden, and have access to a hill of cow manure and straw (it's up to eight years old; no odor). We brought home several bags to work into the soil and have also begun filling a composter with the stuff, but it's gonna take a while before it's ready. Can we use the manure as compost? Thanks.
    --Benjamin in Bass River, NS, Canada
Will composted manure burn plants like chemical fertilizer? I have access to cattle manure that's been processed for a long period of time at a facility near here.
    ---Kathy in Albuquerque
Answer. Thanks all three of you! I've wanted to do a detailed piece on "manure" for a while now, and you asked just the right questions to propel me along.

Lets start with a definition. I'll try and do this delicately: The word "manure" refers to the solid waste the animal was all done with, plus the liquid waste, AND the material put down to cover the floor to make it less slippery by capturing Numbers One and Two. Typically, this bedding is straw, spoiled hay, wood shavings or some other carbon-rich material. So, you guys don't have manure and bedding, you have true 'manure'.

The waste is nitrogen-rich and the bedding is carbon-rich. Those of you who paid attention during compost class know that this perfect blend is all complete and ready for composting. And yes, composted it must be. Any manure can injure plants while it is still fresh, by 'burning' or dehydrating them. Yes, some farmers do use fresh manure on their fields, but they typically spread it in the Fall, so it will break down and be safe by Spring planting time. But this is a VERY inefficient use of the material. And it is extremely nasty on the smelliness end; you will regret it greatly if you try this at home, kids.

And there's no reason to—manure composts VERY easily. Already that perfect combination of nitrogen and carbon, it quickly becomes a beautiful, crumbly, black, odor-free soil amendment. No container necessary—the best way to compost manure is in a big pile out in the open. (Fill that wonderful composter with shredded leaves and house and yard green waste instead!)

Don't worry; unlike with spreading, manure will not waft any unpleasant odors after its first piled up. And it will have no odor at all when it's done and ready to use, even while you're turning it into the soil or shoveling it around your established plants, which is how you should use it when it is finished.

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And while I wouldn't fill an entire composter with the stuff, small amounts of manure can certainly be added to a compost pile of shredded fall leaves or a mixture of shredded leaves and other green waste. And added it should be—many experts feel that adding some manure to such a pile creates the highest quality compost. You can use fresh or composted manure in such a situation, although fresh manure will help a slowpoke pile cook up much faster, especially in cool weather.

Now let's take a look at the differences between the various barnyard manures. Note that this is GENERAL information; things like the age of the animals involved, how they're kept and fed, and the type of bedding are all going to affect the outcome. (Shredded newspaper, for instance, will produce much lower quality compost than the other bedding we've mentioned.) But in general:

  • Cow manure is the 'coldest'; that is, the least Nitrogen rich. But that's not a bad thing; too much Nitrogen gives you big plants with few to no fruits and flowers. And cow manure is the most balanced of the barnyard manures, making it very appropriate for all garden uses.

  • Horse manure is 'hot'; richer in Nitrogen and physically warm to the…eh…'touch' so to speak. It is also lower in the 'fruiting and rooting' nutrients Phosphorus and Potassium, which is why we always warn people not to use horse manure on flowering plants. Use it on non-flowering, nitrogen-hungry plants like lawns, corn, potatoes, garlic, and lettuce; but not on tomatoes, peppers, flowers, and such. This IS generally the manure most widely available to gardeners, however; so at the very least, take it and incorporate it into your compost, where it will lose its fruit-and-flower inhibiting power.

  • Sheep. I was surprised in my research (yes—I looked stuff up this week!) to see that this is even 'hotter' than horse, with about half again as much nitrogen. But it is equally rich in Potassium, making it much more balanced. Sheep are smaller (and people say I'm not observant!) and less numerous than horsies, so I don't imagine you'd ever be offered much. But take what you can get, and use it sparingly. It's balanced, but rich.

  • Poultry. Hotter than hot! More than twice as hot as horse manure, so a little goes a long, long way. Mix small amounts of this material well into your compost piles and the result will be a powerful organic fertilizer. Again, keep the amounts small—and even then, keep an eye on any fruiting and flowering plants that receive this gift. If they get big but under-produce otherwise, back off a little. But feel free to use fairly large amounts on Nitrogen hungry plants like sweet corn.

  • "Other" If the poop-producer is a vegetarian (rabbit, gerbil, guinea pig, llama, elephant, rhino, etc.) go right ahead and incorporate it into your compost pile. (Warning—elephant pies are the size of a football, composed of mostly undigested roughage, and take forever to break down. I recommend helping things along with a machete and/or baseball bat. But once it is finally done, the resulting compost keeps the deer MILES away.)

  • If the animal is a meat eater, like a dog, cat, lion or tiger, do not use the material in any form; even meat-eaters that are kept indoors can harbor dangerous parasites that are completely absent in 'veggie manures'. That's right—no dog or cat pet poop should EVER go in the compost! If you already made that mistake, don't use the compost; and wear gloves when you toss it into the woods or otherwise dispose of it.