Friday, June 3, 2011

Composting Animal Manures

Some things to you need to be prepared for. When I entered the milk house to clean up the chicken manure pack left from the 125 chicks we started, the ammonia smell was so hot, it felt like it was burning inside me. After filling the first wheel barrow, I reasoned that a respirator would be worth the time it took to retrieve it. It worked to block the full force of it, but the seal it had on my face was not strong enough to account for my movements, so I would get small whiffs of it along the way. The odor was remarkably reminiscent of our time in French cheese caves. The bacteria at work in the aging of cheese produce ammonia to a greater or lesser extent. The soft smear ripened muenster we bought at a market in Paris was memorable for this reason. The ammonia on it's surface would burst into my mouth, filling my nasal cavities the way an excessively carbonated beverage might. The pate of the muenster was formidable on it's own, but it seemed tame in contrast to the violence of it's crust. However, I digress.

Aside from smelling awful, ammonia gas rising from a pile of manure is a loss of available nitrogen. Nitrogen that was in the manure is now escaping into the air as ammonia (you can read more about that here). Nitrogen is essential for all growing things. In a well managed compost pile the available nitrogen would be captured by clay and digested by nitrogen fixing bacteria during the pile's transformation into stable humus. Humus is that miraculous substance that all gardeners want. It holds all of the macro and micro nutrients that plants need to grow. It attracts and holds moisture, and it is resistant to breaking down further. I am a novice in the world of making compost, but I can recommend Steve Solomon's excellent treatise on the topic- Organic Gardener's Composting. He explains the practical science of composting in a clear and interesting way. I credit him with giving me the enthusiasm and the basic knowledge needed to confront our manure piles in any way at all. Normally I would leave these things for the more masculine among us.

Although the smell loomed large, the total mass was only two wheel barrows full. I brought it to the red barn where we kept the small cows last winter. We'd been amassing their manure and bedding throughout the cold months. Now that the cows are out on pasture, Edmund and Garth have turned and wet the pile a few times, incorporating nitrogen rich elements, like old chicken feed and alfalfa pellets, as they go in an effort to heat the pile up so that it will break down thoroughly.

What is less appealing than a pile of partially decomposed manure? A pile of partially decomposed manure crawling with snakes. Well, a snake. I had chosen to work on this yesterday because the temperature had dropped significantly overnight. This little guy had felt the drop too and crawled in there for the warmth. It had shed its skin by the edge of the pile. I had just read that hair, nails, and horns, are all rich in nitrogen, so I lay the skin at the bottom of the pile with some fresh alfalfa, in part because of the science, but also because of the creepy concoction, witchy aspect to the whole thing. I couldn't resist.

The real effort is in the turning. I was smart enough to wait until someone (Garth) was free to assist me.

What struck me as we were turning it was how narrow the line is between a 'good' smell and a very 'bad' smell. It smelled like wine and fermenting fruit, like cabbages and broccoli, like really good cheese or a very complex stew. The chemical compounds formed by a compost pile must be nearly identical to those we enjoy in our food, just slightly off kilter or out of balance. Solomon compares composting to any other small fermentation operation- bread, beer, or the like. The composter is trying, as efficiently as is possible with the materials available to him, to create conditions under which the desired microbes will thrive. He uses air, water and effort to modulate its activity. He learns through practice. This is my first effort in composting animal manures. The experience will teach me, if nothing else, but I hope we create something valuable from a vegetable grower's perspective. I guess we won't know until next Spring, but we'll have an idea as we watch it progress.

The pile is turned. I have a blister. What a massive heap.



  1. Some days at the office feel exactly like this. Metaphorically, at least.

  2. Poor you. But it was satisfying! Keep up the good work.

  3. I've never seen a pile of manure look so cute, I love that pic with the split! I continue to enjoy your blog, it's my little escape from suburbia...thank you.