Saturday, 7 November 2009

An overlooked resource

Just this past week we had a break in the rains long enough I could get the garlic planted. In my garden journal, this signals the beginning of the 2010 gardening season. What usually coincides with the annual garlic planting is that the soil is starting to cool and go dormant. Late fall also is when we start bedding our various types of livestock in order to capture as much manure as we can for next year's compost.

While I am writing this from a farmers point of view, even small holders or urban gardeners with a flock of hens or a few rabbits can gather enough material to ensure sustainability in the garden. While it is easy and convenient to buy organic fertilizers these days, to give your garden a boost, someday the store may not be there, or the economy may be such that those types of materials may not be readily available. And if you are taking into account how many food miles your food has traveled, you have to take into account purchased soil amendments that are often shipped in from faraway places, or the mishandling at CAFO's and slaughter facilities that make that blood, fish, or feather meal possible. Not to mention the drug cocktail present in those materials.

I'll start with laying hens, since many people have taken charge of their egg supply by keeping hens for eggs. In our area, the closest major city allows 3 hens without a permit, or up to 6 with a permit and inspections. The next closest city does not allow chickens, and citizens are pleading with the city council to reconsider. One of the biggest complaints is the smell of chicken manure.
And I have to agree, chicken manure does have it's own particular odor, since it is so high in nitrogen. That smell is the nitrogen dissipating into the air, which is exactly where we don't want it. What is needed is carbon, and the easiest way to capture that escaping nitrogen is to apply carbon in the form of some kind of bedding.

Sometimes we get a notion in our heads, and we run with idea. For most chicken keepers that instinct is that our chickens must free-range or be moved around in portable coops to distribute the nitrogen rich manure, and provide new ground for the scratching hens. But unless you are actively growing grass in a grazing program, many times the chickens just end up fertilizing a lawn, or a grassy area. Which in turn needs cutting, and that takes more fossil fuel and time on your part. Perpetuating the garden instead of the lawn is a much better use of the wonderful output of the hens that is often overlooked or thought of as something that needs to go away. Old timers knew saving manure was saving money.

I have come to the conclusion that even a few spent hens that are beyond their laying career, could provide enough nitrogen rich manure for a family garden of a good size. Of course, you would have to buy a few bales of straw to keep them comfortable all winter and to tie down the nutrients in the manure. But the price of local straw is nominal compared to the price of a bag of fertilizer. Not all crops require this high nitrogen application either, a garden rotation placing this material on the heavy feeders, and following the next year with vegetables that have lower fertility requirements will help you take the most advantage of this home produced fertilizer.

Of course, this does require a different mindset, the thought of cleaning out a huge amount of bedding does turn people off, especially if they have been scarred for life from cleaning out the gross chicken house, that is the typical board or concrete floor type with encrusted manure everywhere. But the deep bedding method is different. The material is light and fluffy, and the action of the hens distributes the manure until it looks and smells composty. After the bedding reaches 12" deep it begins to compost and take on a life of it's own.

We also deep bed our beef cows. By doing this we are able to capture most of their winter manure output for composting, and we are keeping them off the pastures during the wet season and allowing for rest of the land.

As the bedding deepens, it begins to heat and partially compost, giving the stock a warm place to rest and a way to conserve energy in the cold winter months. They are kept a little warmer and therefore do not require as much food to maintain body temperature, which in turn requires less feed to be stored, and less fuel and energy expended by us.

Once the wet season starts anywhere, it is detrimental to the soil and stock to allow them to continue to churn up the green into brown. I know it is common to see swine that are often kept in mud yards, and while it is accepted, it is not proper, or a sign of good husbandry to allow the pigs to express their rooting ways during the rainy season. Wet mud and manure mixed in is a recipe that allows pathogens to flourish, and the soil structure is damaged for years to come, making it hard for the soil to drain properly and accept the manure that is deposited. The same goes for cattle, sheep, and goats whether it is one or many.

If you start looking at your resources at hand in a symbiotic way, ideas form and begin to gel. Here are some ways that may be able to help you make that black gold for yourself and become more independent in your gardening endeavors.

Chickens: Deep bed your hen house for the entire winter. The amount of accumulation will astound you, and cause ideas to sprout in your mind of a larger, more productive garden. Of course, you will have to compost this material, but the results once you start gardening with composted manure will be amazing. It's like waiting for that first paycheck, once you get on a winter bedding/composting schedule you will always compost in the works.

Also a batch of broiler chickens raised in a floor-less pen the size of your garden beds and deep bedded, can be used to jump start new garden areas, or fertilize existing beds. The pen would have to be moved once a week by hand by lifting and leaving the bedding pack in place, but the extra effort would be worth it to have a fully fertilized area for the next season. Have a few friends over with the promise of fresh chicken or veggies, and they will be happy to help you pick up that pen. :) Worms absolutely go bananas in the garden after a treatment like this, and will work their wonders on the straw and chicken manure. While raising broilers outside is a warm weather type of activity, raising broilers in the off-season in a greenhouse is a great way to keep them protected from the weather, and be able to capture their manure. We have found that removing the bedding in the greenhouse and then growing in the soil where the chickens were housed previously, provides ample fertility for a vegetable crop. A system like this works well for both plants and animals, by breaking up parasites and pests of both crops and animals and allowing "rest." The vegetables provide rest from animal impact and the animals replenish the soil and provide rest from crop growing.

Rabbits: Rabbit manure is one of the best for gardens. While you don't see rabbits kept on deep bedding, if you have plans for rabbits, design your facilities in such a way that the rabbit manure is kept from the weather. Perhaps breeding stock in fixed cages inside a well-ventilated lean-to or barn. Place your cages high enough, so cleaning out from underneath them is easily done, and make sure to place straw or sawdust underneath capture the urine also. Chickens in combination with breeding rabbits is a great combination, as seen at Polyface in the Raken house. The chickens sort through the bedding constantly, and keep the strong rabbit manure mixed in the bedding. In this type of system, the manure is almost fully composted by the time the chickens get done working their magic.

Cattle: Whether you have one cow or several, dairy or beef, it makes no matter. Students of Biodynamics know that cow manure has an enlivening influence on soil life. Cow manure is microbially enhanced by the workings of the rumen and should be more revered. For winter feeding, plan your feeding area with the idea of nutrient capture in mind. Meaning not only should the feed be covered and kept from the elements the area at the back of the cow should be kept from the weather too. Not only do we want to get the most out of our hay (collected sunlight) we want to protect the manure and urine output too. To let the manure go to waste from any animal is like throwing money away. Feed that is discarded by the animals, can be used for additional bedding material. Too often for convenience sake, the hay is just thrown out to the stock in a mud or dirt lot, much gets trampled, and soiled and is therefore wasted, and the manure is too, often too much in an area with no vegetation. Bare soil cannot utilize large amounts of manure, some type of vegetation must be present. No green, no gain - meat, milk or pocketbook.

Horses: Horse manure is similar to rabbit, sheep and goat, in that it is dry in nature, and doesn't require the same type and quantity of bedding as cattle. However, the urine needs to be saved to make this a complete fertilizer, so perhaps sawdust in small amounts in the pee area of a horse stall is a good idea. An often overlooked aspect of horse care is day stabling, and night grazing. Keeping a horse in during the day, when the flies are the worst, and allowing for night pasturing, is a way to capture this valuable on farm resource, and keep the horses from being pestered so much by flies. Same for cattle. It also cuts down on potential pesticide usage too.

Neighbors: Got you on this one didn't I? If you don't keep any of the aforementioned animals yourself, maybe your neighbor does. And would be happy to let you supply bedding for his animals if you promise to take the material off of his hands, by cleaning his chicken house occasionally. You provide the straw and some labor, and he provides the manure. A neighbor of ours delivers their stable cleanings to our place free of charge. It is a liability to them, and and an asset to us. Sometimes it is easier to go with the flow, and just utilize what is at hand, than to go against the grain. Our neighbors have seen our composting and the results, but to them, getting rid of all the manure their horses generate is what makes them the happiest. Retraining them is too hard of work.

One final word about facilities, you do not need to build elaborate buildings, simple sheds and well designed feeding and traffic areas are all that is needed. Keeping livestock of any kind requires that the animal's and stockman's needs are met, this post is just highlighting a practice that used to be common in the days that smallholdings, crofts and farms were managed in a more sustainable way.

These are just a few tips, but hopefully I have sparked some ideas. Sometimes the way to save money is not to spend it in the first place.