Skip to content

Cow doo and cow dew

March 28, 2008

Every idea which does not become your ideal, slays a force in your soul; every idea which becomes your ideal, creates within you life-forces. 
Rudolph Steiner  

 Until we started raising chickens on a commercial scale, I assumed like everyone else that chicken manure was the porsche of animal based fertilizer. Higher N numbers, right?  That’s all that matters, right?  I always used cow and horse manure, because that is what we had.  I raised rabbits for 4-H and we usually had that manure available too.  I was eager to try that first composted chicken bedding.  I guarded that part of our compost piles like a dog guarding a meaty bone. (Or, in the case of our dogs, a carrot) Hubby had strict instructions to only put chicken compost on the new garden!  Well, everyone else was right – that corn was tall, and dark green, all the vegetables planted in that garden were wonderful.  I was eagerly anticipating, that from now on, my garden would always look like something out of magazine. 

 “new garden”    2002Click for Full Size View

Next year rolled around, and like a restaurant patron, when asked the question, “Beef, Chicken, or Pork?”  I emphatically ordered, Chicken!  But, as I was tilling in this wonderful material, I started noticing that the soil structure was not the same as the other garden.  The soil seemed lighter, and lacking substance.  Of course, I reasoned the differences had to do with the fact that this was “newer” ground.  But, really it should be in the same shape, since I had rotated from a good sod of clover-laden pasture.  This was the perfect cleansing rotation.  Things grew well again, but the soil structure did not improve.  The chicken compost is great I realized, for leafy crops that need high nitrogen, but we grow mostly “fruit” and root type crops that favor a more slow release type of effect.  Most likely, like us, a protein shake will fuel us, but a healthy meal, eaten slowly in pleasant company is better. 

Building compost piles using animal bedding packs from winter.  2007
Click for Full Size View

 I was beginning to notice that one side of this garden was different.  I had sheet composted with the cleanings from the milk cow stall during the previous fall.  I was trying to compare the difference between just spreading the manure in place over a cover crop or composting and then spreading.  I was beginning to “see” that the cow manure was better but I didn’t really know why.  I was just used to the tilth of my soil.  People had commented on feel of the soil before, but I just assumed it was because I had gardened in the same spot for so long and built up the soil.  I usually find it is easy to draw conclusions, but to draw the right conclusion is difficult.  We spend a fair amount of our days here on the farm, observing the landscape and the livestock, but I get complacent and assume other farms and gardens are the same as ours.  I know that our land was “stolen” from forest when it was cleared, so our job is to keep the organic matter high, like the forest before us did.  We have very little tilled land, just our garden area.  The rest is land that was cleared by hand, by my grandparents for pasture, with the lion’s share being forest land.  We live in the Western Hemlock zone, but because of historic forest fires and logging, most of our forestland is predominately Douglas Fir. 

 On our farm, as you radiate away from our human activities, the less intervention is needed by way of management.  By this, I mean keeping an eye on our organic matter levels.   In our garden areas,  where we have a high impact, we must continually replenish what we take away.  The next zone is our pastureland, and we rotationally graze our cattle to increase the organic matter and apply compost to our hay ground.  The forest remains more dynamic, we rarely take much, acting as the clean-up crew. Utilizing windfall, ice-damaged, and dying trees for our firewood.  We also forage for salad greens, mushrooms and medicinal plants.  Approximately 95% of our land is at rest at all times.

But I’m rambling here…

What I have noticed over the years, is that cattle do make a difference.  People have know that fact since around 8000 BC.  It isn’t hard to recognize the importance of the meat, milk, leather, bone and tallow, in addition to the fertilizing effects of the manure.  Having been on the farm ground of many different farms, either haying or participating in pasture walks,  I have seen the difference too.  The sod is thicker and softer at the same time, with hardly any gaps between grass plants.  This is even if the cattle are just allowed to continous graze with no thought to management.  Cattle do not compete for human food (like poultry and pigs) if they are fed properly. Which for a ruminant means grazing instead of munching away at potential breakfast cereal material.  A mowing machine to keep the grass short just doesn’t have the same effect as a cow grazing.  I only have to look in my own yard to see the difference.

Some people believe (me included) that the bacteria in the rumen of a cow inocculates the feed that she eats and is transmuted into something different during the elimination process.  This is the same for certain plant species that depend on the stratifying effect of a birds digestive tract to help their seeds germinate quicker, or like the trees growing better in areas where the salmon- eating black bear has defecated.  The practice of biodynamics certainly is dependent on the cow.  Field prep 500 uses the horns and manure of cattle to attract the forces of earth in the winter, and prep 501 uses horns and silica to attract the forces of the cosmos in the summer.  Practicing biodynamics on a full scale is like a religion, and I have to admit to being a little “cosmically challenged.”  We try to plant and cut (castrate) by the moon, but for the most part our farming activities get done by factoring everything else in too.  I know that if I miss certain weather windows in gardening and hay- making, that an entire seasons productivity is lessened. 

The dew on a cow’s nose.      (Or the color chip for the Tumbleweed crayon)
Click for Full Size View

Peasants have probably known for centuries that the dew on a cow’s nose carries an inoculant that invigorates the land where the cattle graze.  I didn’t pay any attention to this, until I read an article in Acres USA, titled “Cow Culture.”  We noticed the dew for sure, but would just tease our cows and tell them they were on, or off duty.  Just like we tell the dogs, wet nose – ON DUTY, dry nose – OFF DUTY.  I had noticed on the baby calves though, that as soon as they got their cud, they got the dew.  I can’t observe our beef calves as close, but the milk cow’s calf usually has the dew drops by the 6th day or so. (yeah, that is my job – Dew Monitor)  Maybe this could explain the difference I felt walking on other peoples land.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing a beautiful field of vegetables at a CSA farm, is a joy to behold.  The vibrancy and array of colors is amazing, but different.  Sometimes an effect is there that we don’t realize. Case in point:  A neighbor came by last spring to get some compost for his family’s vegetable garden.  He and his wife jog by every day and have visited several times when they have family staying with them.  As we talked, he was casually looking around and listening to the farm.  He commented that it “felt” different, that he didn’t get the same feeling about the farm when he ran by everyday, even though our pastures are right there, about 15 feet from the road.  Maybe he could feel that the soil is alive and always changing.  I was grateful for his comment that day, it just confirmed that I wasn’t totally off my rocker.  I feel this too, in our main garden when I’m weeding.  I feel drawn to kneel and linger, whereas, in the newer garden, I usually don’t get the urge to crawl around, just get in, get out, on to the next job.  Equally, I notice this same thing in our different pastures, the lower the fertility the less I am wont to linger.

So, in conclusion this confirms my belief that animals are a necessary part of our farms and lives.  ( especially cattle!)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2008 11:17 pm

    Have you ever used alfalfa hay for compost and mulch? I did for a couple of years (because we had some old second cut with no weeds. I noticed that it did the same as you chicken doo doo and I went back to the calf pile:)

  2. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    March 29, 2008 3:07 am

    No, alfalfa is hard to come by here, or at least it is prohibitively expensive. It is all grown in Eastern Oregon or Washington, or down in the valley. So trucking it in is expensive. Once in a while I buy some for the milk cow. But, haven’t had real good luck getting bales w/o mold. So it ends up going to the chickens.

  3. March 29, 2008 8:39 am

    Now I have another reason to go out and pet our hard working cattle. Alas, winter here means they stay inside, but they will be out soon on the grass.

  4. March 29, 2008 1:27 pm

    Interesting to read about your cow dew. I certainly need a few animals about to feel settled!

  5. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    March 29, 2008 2:14 pm

    Sharon – our cows too, over-winter in the barn. I can’t tell who is more eager to begin the grazing process. Cows or me. We have been having late snow, which even though the news reports are saying it is the latest snow, it isn’t, we have had snow into April before. But, to see snow flakes in Portland is unusual.

    Topveg – Animals have that effect on their handlers. They are comforting to be around.

  6. April 1, 2008 8:20 am

    This post makes me so look forward to getting some cattle! We will be buying in a handful of stockers this year so I’ll be looking to your archives for cow-y wisdom such as dew-monitoring. 😉
    On another tack: the self-awareness in your comment about easily drawing conclusions but not necessarily the right ones is comforting to read. Though, having read enough from you by now, I’m not surprised. You seem like a thinking kind of gal. Cheers!

  7. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    April 1, 2008 2:57 pm

    Colleen – Thank you for always being soo nice. You will like the stockers. Since we started direct marketing, I have learned so much. One thing is that those pesky “teenage” steers become sweet – and I mean personality wise. But single age herds have a personality of their own, similar to grade school kids – so be prepared for some antics, since there won’t be any stern teachers (cows) to discipline them.
    Picture this: 6 grade boys with a substitute teacher!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: