Sunday, May 27, 2012

Using animal manure in the garden

Animal manure is the foundation of all fertilizer—worldwide; it is either applied directly to fields and gardens or it is processed to make bagged manure, or other forms of commercial fertilizer. Animal manure is excellent fertilizer, and an excellent source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients; but it has its drawbacks, its deficiencies, and its costs too.

Steer manure: is by far the most abundant animal manure and the most complete; it contains generous amounts of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, it also contains many of the trace minerals that also aid plant growth. Steer manure contains about 3-4% nitrogen by volume, when fresh. The older it is, the less nitrogen it contains. Part of the nitrogen in steer manure is in the form of ammonia, which is a gas, and dissipates into the air quite rapidly, so should be tilled in immediately.

But how do you use the stuff, and how do you apply it? One reason commercial fertilizer is so popular is it is in a concentrated form, comes in a nice clean bag, and is easy to apply; steer manure? Not so much. Steer manure is available from dairies, cattle farms and stockyards—and in bags at your local nursery. Some of these might deliver to you, but it’s likely you will have to go get your own, a major inconvenience—it might also be free, a major advantage.

As a rule of thumb, if you decide to apply steer manure to your garden, you would apply about 3-4 inches of manure on the ground, then till it in as deep as you can. This may seem like a lot of manure, and it is, but if you think about the distribution, you’re not getting a huge amount of nitrogen out of it, but probably enough. Also, only about half of the nitrogen will be released the first year, the rest, the following year. By comparison, a few pounds of 34-0-0 commercial fertilizer would equate to all this steer manure—and it is all available right now; but you get no organic matter from it.

Steer manure also contains quite a lot of weed seed that will sprout, so this is a negative of using barnyard manure. Some commercially bagged steer manure is “cleaned” and is free of weeds, but this bagged manure ends up being quite expensive; so that is your tradeoff.

Horse manure: has about 1% nitrogen, by comparison; but has more “undigested” feed in it, and if sawdust is also included, much of the nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down this material. Horses don’t digest feed as well as cows do, so much of the hay is just pushed right on through and ends up in the manure. If horse manure is used, it is generally necessary to supplement with a commercial nitrogen fertilizer…for some crops.

Horse manure also contains a fair amount of weed seed—so expect it. And horse manure is almost always free. Those with horses are delighted to get rid of the stuff—but you’ll probably have to go get it yourself. I always make friends with a couple of neighbors who stable horses, and ask if I can take their manure; I’ve never been refused yet.

Turkey manure: has a nitrogen content of about 9%, triple that of steer manure, so it is “hot” stuff, and you must be careful in applying it or you will “burn” your young, tender plants. The Moroni, Utah turkey growers sell a “turkey mulch” that mixes turkey manure with sawdust or other wood products. This makes an excellent manure/mulch for the garden—but it’s expensive, and must be trucked in. Because some of the nitrogen is tied up in breaking down the sawdust, it makes a great fertilizer and mulch for the garden.

However, turkey mulch (also true for chicken manure) has very little phosphate, potash, or the trace minerals; so what you’re getting is nitrogen and excellent mulch. But turkey and chicken manure has very little weed seed in it, so this is a plus.

Chicken manure: All that is true about turkey manure is true with chicken manure also.

Pig manure: pig manure has about double the nitrogen of steer manure, but because it contains different bacteria than other animal manure, it becomes a very slow release nitrogen and generally takes two to three years before you get all the nitrogen from it, so it is a poor fertilizer for nitrogen; it also contains less organic matter than does steer or horse manure.

Overview: fertilizer does not need to be expensive, but it can be. Commercial fertilizer is not cheap, but very convenient, and easy to apply. Turkey manure is an excellent fertilizer and compost but is also expensive. If you’re resourceful you can get all the steer manure and/or horse manure you want for free—but labor will be required.

If you choose to buy all the expensive gardening materials, you might well have $14.00 tomatoes, but if you’re resourceful you can produce the best tasting and largest tomatoes around—at a fraction of what you will pay in the store.

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