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Peeing it Forward Part I

January 2, 2015

Got you with that title didn’t I?  My hope with the new year and all the farm planning that is taking place at kitchen tables everywhere, is that a bit of time is devoted to manure management too.  I have yet to see anyone talking about their spreadsheets for spreading, or hanging onto the wealth of manure produced on the farm.  So I’ll do it, not a spreadsheet but talking about IT.  And I’ll highlight my problem areas along the way.

Asset or Liability?  Farmstead manure can be one or the other depending on your view of sustainability.  Usually you hear how much material leaves a farm, not how much is retained.  Often that is measured in pounds or tons depending on the size of the farm, and the type of crops.  Annual crops are the worst offenders.  Perennials next, and then livestock.  There is no free lunch though for any us.  Even if a cow gives you 50 pounds of manure and urine each and every day to replace what she has eaten in the way of forage or hay, you have to capture that manure and urine in a meaningful way.  Then you go down the slippery slope of bringing in feedstuffs for your livestock and you’re taking away from another piece of land to replenish yours.  Don’t feel bad, we all do it.  We just need to do less bringing in and more keeping at home.  On our hillside farm, cattle are the stars, taking forage we can’t eat and turning it into meat and milk.  And if I’m mindful I can gather their manure and use it to fertilize the annual crops we consume.  Other farms may differ, but we can all agree we can strive to be better farmers.

I’m so anal about not having enough manure, I let neighbors bring me their liability manure.  Even though I am just standing there loading my wheelbarrow, I’m having as much fun as the dogs.  Horse poop delivery day is a fun day!


Manure usage fell on farms for many reasons.  As animals left the farm landscape manure became less available, and with good reason, handling manure was/is hard work.  And then there is the fear of weeds, even organic gardeners and farmers worship at the altar of convenience food for soil – bagged fertilizer –  because of the fear of weeds.  Even with stringent composting practices, weed seeds are still present in manure from animals…because animals eat plants and seeds.  Seeds are smart, they know how to live and spread, most survive the journey through the digestive tract of any animal.  Weed seeds aside, manure management especially during winter deserves some planning also, just as much as determining planting dates and such.


Hay piles approximately one half bale each, at least two cow lengths apart to prevent soiling.

As with any task on a farm, there is always a list of pros and cons or tradeoffs, if you will.  I have a mental template that I apply for all my manure decisions.  It’s not a perfect world, one year one idea works, the next year it won’t.  Usually you don’t see the bad thing coming until it’s staring you in the face.  Reality bites.  I’m still smarting years later about calves being born on deep bedding…more on that later.

Right now, my cows are outside and we’re taking feed to them.  Easy as pie.  Cows are happy, I’m happy.  But.


Too much manure because it’s warmer here, this photo above was taken 5 minutes before I took a photo of the cows eating. (photo before this one)

I’m loosely calling this my 2/2 plan.  Two acres for two weeks.  I enjoy some extremely well-drained soil but even so, the small 1/8th acre paddocks of summer will not bode well for my pastures during the fall and winter.  And like summer I have weather related camp sites where the cows hang out, and too much manure accumulates.  I know I said I can’t get enough manure, but you can have too much manure or hoof action in one place.  All you have to do is watch the cows, then change as needed.  The two photos above illustrate what I mean.  We’ve been hovering around 17° F to 19°F each night, no Gorge wind here, but it’s cold for here west of the Cascades.  The cows will naturally seek out the warmest spot to conserve energy.  This year I have taken a different tack, I’m watching more and doing less.  Once I see an area developing that may be a problem, I build a fence.  Cows are so easy to fence in or out with a single hotwire, it’s unbelievable.  Too much manure? Spend 5 minutes putting up a shear fence.  Strip manuring basically instead of strip grazing.  Today I fenced them away from this area, fed them in the snow to get some manure in areas they don’t prefer and called it good.  Our weather is moderating, and they can move their night resting area over bit.

Now for Miss Jane, the milk cow and her two children.

For my convenience they are pastured near the house.

But as you can see where Jane spends a lot of time ruminating world peace, or waiting for to be let in for milking, she leaves a lot of manure piles.  The crows are happy to spread it for me since some of Jane’s grain goes through undigested but there is still too much of a good thing.  The grass will now be overly lush, and since we make hay in this pasture, it’s hard to get the equipment right up to the fence, so this fertility is being wasted.  Convenience trumps much manure management here in this spot though, I expect Jane to be waiting at the gate at milking time, or at least coming to this gate when I call.  A cow’s nature is to defecate and urinate before eating so I can only go against that so much.  Jane hears me getting her feed ready before milking, and she does her business, great for the milking area, not so great for the gateway.

So I built a fake hotwire.  The psychological barrier is such that Jane stays on the other side.  Everyone is lonely since Willy’s departure to the big summer pasture in the sky.  It used to be that the calves and Jane could each stand near the Willster for company.  Now they only have each other with their mean ol’ human mom intervening.  That part of the pasture is a disaster, if you want to ruin your soil, either get a horse or two or start pasturing pigs in our wet climate.  Ugh. Can’t unring that bell.  You can bet I will be taking photos of the slow recovery period in that old stomping ground area come spring.

Woe is us.

Woe is us.

So for now that is what is happening manure-wise here this first week of 2015.  Part II will delve into the labor aspect of manure capture and how building design, or lack thereof plays a huge part in manure management.  I’ll even throw in some chicken deep bedding photos and numbers for you folks with poultry as your main fertility machines.









29 Comments leave one →
  1. T.Valentine permalink
    January 2, 2015 4:42 pm

    Awesome post. Look forward to the chicken manure info. Thank you.

  2. indigotiger permalink
    January 2, 2015 5:33 pm

    I always learn things when I read what you share here, thank you for your efforts. I am going to be getting hens again after two years without, and hope to do a better job of using their assistance with my little city yard and garden than I have in the past. Your wisdom will help

  3. January 2, 2015 10:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing. We have three sheep to spread their fertility around. If it wasn’t for the fact they are pretty good at that, they would have been in the freezer by now. Our alpacas have a poo pile, which keeps things nice and neat and tidy, but that means we have to transport the fertility. You win some, you lose some. I envy your well drained soil though. We had about 10 inches of snow disappear in the last couple of days in the rain, the ground is not good at the moment and it is a good job we don’t have cattle stomping in it. The only time we have had cattle, is when the neighbours cows got through their fence and they left great depressions in the ground that you can still see over a year later.

  4. January 3, 2015 7:47 am

    Pasture management is critical here too, well everywhere, but on a tiny spread such as mine to lose a field to feet is dreadful, I pasture my pigs in the areas I intend to resow the following year. If the land is wet, the cows are up on the concrete. Sad usually. May I ask what you were meaning about calving in straw? I clean out my calving pen and put in fresh straw if they cannot calve outside (but then I have to bring the calves up anyway to begin the milking/coyotes, etc ). I have heard of people laying tarps so the calf comes into a completely clean area. Can you extend that comment for me. many thanks.. c

    • January 3, 2015 10:59 am

      C., I’ll put that in the next post, since I’m going to talk about the bedding/building aspect, what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong.

  5. January 3, 2015 1:41 pm

    Boy oh boy, I have something for you to read…

    I saw this lady talk in October and came out with 100 other farmers with a new way of thinking about soil creation.
    I have always thought ” you must replace what you take” when it comes to soil, and I guess this is all wrong.

    One way she explains it that makes sense is this …
    A tree grows up from a tiny seed, and ten years later there may be 500 lbs of wood that make up that tree. Where did the carbon come from?
    When the soil under and around the tree is tested, all minerals,nutrients,carbon have remained the same over that trees life.
    That fact is, photosynthesis transfers light into energy used to pull carbon from the air, and convert that gaseous carbon into a solid form.
    Fungi and bacteria transfer nutrients and minerals into the root systems when the plant sends signals of what it needs.

    This only touches in the smallest fraction of the systems, and they still aren’t understood fully. But, we have it wrong about the “replace what you took” idea for sure.

  6. January 3, 2015 1:54 pm

    When composting carbon based materials, the pile gets smaller and smaller as it decomposes. Where does it go?
    The material transferred to gaseous carbon and floated away.

    Soil is built by plant growth in the root system, soil is combination of crushed rock, and humus . Humus, she says isn’t decomposing material, but alive material, and only present around living plant roots. The complex relationship between plant root, fungi, bacteria is what creates humus.
    In a summer fallow field, all humus is gone by fall. No plants, no humus, no good soil.
    Manure acts as a type of “hormone signal” to the plants in a field, and so does the saliva left on the leaves of grass after a grazing animal clips it.
    Apparently the “brix” in plants can be increased in a few hours by spraying water soaked lightly in manure. Not compost tea, just a light spray of fresh liquid manure. 5 litres per acre for example.

    • January 3, 2015 2:59 pm

      Good article in the previous comment, however, it assumes we only uses perennial plants to sustain ourselves. And this is why we have less than 1% of our land in annual crops. The other 99% is rotationally grazed pasture and forest. Annual croplands with the bounty exported do need something replaced whether it be animal manures or cover crops since we pull those carrots and send them off to another piece of land. Same with a hayfield that is harvested each year, soon the plant community changes with backward succession until finally the human decides to let that poor old mined hayfield go back to trees. Agriculture as we know it is not a natural process. We’ve added steel in the way of plows to get rid of perennials and some of us have animals that don’t roam, we have to make up the shortfall somewhere. That’s what I’m writing about. Annual cropping is not going away, grains and vegetables are part of our diet, practices that don’t deplete need to be talked about.

      • Theresa @ CopperBounty permalink
        January 6, 2015 10:26 am

        I have stewed on this for a few days; it is a very complicated topic and one that can’t really be discussed properly this way.

        I have loved your blog from the first post I read 2 years ago, and you have inspired several projects on my farm, from canning tomatoes to making cottonwood salve… 🙂

        I know that you are willing to contemplate innovative and new-age processes on your farm, because mob-stocking was a totally new and outlandish idea not that long ago. Still most producers know very little about the benefits of it.

        I am a member of our local gov. funded group called Peace Country Beef and Forage Association, a good group of mixed-farms that bring in specialists and get funding for special projects and studies in our area. Remember that up here we have much adversity because we have an average winter temp of 10F from October to April, with frequnt lows to -40F.
        Our growing season is so short and with it comes many difficulties.

        We also have 20 cows, and are ramping up for a total of 40-50. We are relatively young, and worked hard to buy this land and the house and the equipment and the animals etc. We have no family within 600 miles, but this is where the work is, and this is where we choose to be.

        Anyhow, what i was touching on in the above comments is’nt understood, I can tell in the reply.
        It is a new way of understanding how the soil-plant-animal process works. It will revolutionize all agriculture I am sure of it. The scientist that spoke at our conference said; in her fifty years of working in the field of plants for agriculture, she knows all lab studies on annual seed crops are now considered irrelevant. (garbage). !! She puts her reputation behind this statement.
        I would love to point you in the direction of looking into this more thoroughly.
        The main point is this:
        Yes we need annual crops and vegetables. But, we aren’t growing them in a sustainable way on the large scale of things. That is for the big grain producers to hash-out.
        However, what I now understand about soil regeneration will totally change the decisions i make for our pasture/hayland/and even my garden on our 160 acres.
        Still learning, still wrapping my mind around the details. What you take does NOT need to be replaced, it makes no difference IF the field is set up the way nature intended. That is the key, you need to research the why and the how, and the because… lol
        This article includes trials within 50 miles of my farm, very exciting stuff. Gabe Brown is another successful farmer practicing this way of farming. He has spoke at conferences around Alberta last year, but unfortunatly I missed him.

        I am just so sure that you need to know this stuff MOH. Have a great day, scratch Jane under the chin and behind the ears for me 🙂

        • January 6, 2015 5:48 pm

          Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. Gee, you’re right it’s hard to discuss something so important as soil health in this type of back and forth over the interwebs. First, I get it, I really do. My vegetable gurus are the Nordells in Pennsylvania who have for many years struggled with the till, no-till, build organic matter dilemma in their market garden. Their extensive use of cover crops interseeded with their cash crops is well-documented and quite intriguing to me as a vegetable gardener. Some things they do I have tried with success, others not so much. I will never work a team a draft horses again on our land. I’m just not that interested, at my age with the work of horses, I like the tractor and the comforts it affords. But I have friends who do work with horses or want to and are equally aghast at tractor use for any type of farm work. So what to do? Another good friend and neighbor just put 18″ of sawdust on her 1/2 acre garden in the Back to Eden style, I am not that interested in that either, but it works, I’ve seen the video. This old dog just likes (I know this will make you shake your head) to see nice straight rows of vegetables with no weeds and no cover crop in between. That’s about as honest as I can be, that’s the truth. But I don’t want to damper your enthusiasm or other readers either, enthusiasm and passion make true changes occur, it takes time and new players, you’re a new player 🙂 But I think I still need to finish the next post because there are people who need to know tomorrow what to do with that mountain of manure they are accumulating as I type this. They may never manage their pastures ideally (me either) but I want to make sure they have some tools to manage their livestock manures.

          I recall a few articles in Graze a couple of years ago written by or about Gabe Brown, I read them, had a few questions and didn’t delve any further, but my questions were: If he grazes until January, what happens after that in North Dakota? And the one that stopped me from doing anymore research into his no-till drilling for crops was the repeated statements of less herbicides are being used…less? How about none? And if you have no cropland, and you have established perennial pastures what then? Reclaiming over-farmed cropland in this way is perfect, but I’m not convinced that good pastures would benefit much from overseeding annuals, I may be wrong. I think the Salatins improved their pastures with just animals, no cropping, but maybe that an apples and oranges thing. Anyhoo, I hope you keep reading…

        • copperbounty permalink
          January 6, 2015 9:34 pm

          Of course I’ll keep reading.

          I have never heard of the Back to Eden Garden but I looked it up and this is essentially what I’m doing in my garden.
          I use straw mostly, this year I used old hay as a barrier on top of the old pasture.
          Only in the “food” rows; I leave wide space between rows for the ride on mower, and keep the weeds clipped short. Looks like a beautiful lawn with rows of food betwix.
          Best part since I stopped rototilling is that my garden doesn’t get muddy anymore; even in a downpour. And I’m on the prairie which is famous for clay. Back when I was tilling, a serious rain would take a week or more to dry up, and it would look like my raised dirt beds were surrounded by moats. Not anymore though.
          I will always garden this way from now on. Low maintenance; few weeds due to deep mulch, less watering due to same reason.
          Perfect for a busy young family.

        • January 6, 2015 9:52 pm


          I can’t deal with the slugs when I have tried mulching…it’s either them or me.

  7. January 3, 2015 4:43 pm

    I really enjoy your wonderful column. It’s always so interesting and provides great research for my writing. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge and experience.

  8. January 4, 2015 6:37 am

    I start my morning early, before daylight, with a cup of tea sweetened with honey and the matronofhusbandry blogpost that begins with a photo of a cow pattie. Thank You for that!!!

  9. Ben permalink
    January 4, 2015 10:51 am

    I think I can tell the older dog from the younger, crazy puppy run! Hilarious.

    • January 4, 2015 12:29 pm

      Yeah, the old ones just stand there and wait while the youngster does all the running. They are hilarious to watch. They especially love farrier week, you never know when you’ll find some hoof to chew.

  10. Bee permalink
    January 4, 2015 7:47 pm

    Yes, the city slickers just don’t get why we ranchers and farmers think poop and pee are such great stuff! Nita, I’ve been re-reading some of your mob-stocking-pasture-improvement posts, and I’m curious about something. I realize you’re very flexible about your daily moves, but what would you say is the average size of one day’s grazing and how many cows/calves do you have on that one chunk at a time? I’ve been reading the various mob-stocking articles and they’re all talking about 100,000 pounds of cows per acre. No way am I that size operation, and it makes it hard to calculate how much land I really need for my tiny herd. Any information would be very much appreciated!

    • January 6, 2015 5:47 am

      Our stocking rate varies, but about 20 head of mixed ages, and approximately about a 1/6 to an 1/8 acre during the grazing season, sometimes more depending on the forage base. You want them to be able to eat enough (rumen fill) and you want them to trample enough to feed the grass a good meal of manure, urine and carbon. Some find it easier to move the cows multiple times a day, but with a small herd, the payback just doesn’t justify the labor output for most people. You either need a passel of kids or plenty of time on your hands to pull that off. The smaller the herd, the harder it is to duplicate the big guys, but I have to say any type of daily moves helps the animals and the grass compared to the old style continuous grazing.

      • Beth Greenwood permalink
        January 6, 2015 6:00 am

        I can just see me convincing the grandkids they have to go move the cows several times a day…
        That helps — thanks!

  11. January 6, 2015 6:47 am

    Yes, your title definitely got me, LOL. Very timely post; this is something I’ve been contemplating ever since I read a photo caption in Morrison’s Feeds and Feeding: “A heavy loss of fertility occurs when hay is sold. Few farmers realize that each ton of hay or grain sold from the farm removes $4 to $6 of plant food.” We might chuckle at that $4 to $6, but that was back in 1943. What price now to maintain good soil fertility? My husband and I are finding it to be way more than that.

    • Theresa @ CopperBounty permalink
      January 6, 2015 11:02 am

      Definition of soil fertility is the cumulation of years of modern research. Here are the requirements in brief;
      1. Zero Till
      2. Diversity in plants + diversity in plant maturation (weeds can be acceptable)
      3. Never summer fallow
      4. Do not apply sythetic nitrogen

      The whys and becauses in short…
      1. Tilling disrupts complicated micorhyzal fungi filiments, and kills microrganisms and ruins soil structure and any existing humus structure
      2. An extremely complex system here;
      -Diversity in plants so that the “town” has post office, school, corner store, police station. It wouldnt be a “complete, fully functional town” without diversity.
      -Different maturation dates for plants because it is in the young growing phase of the plant that produces humus at the roots. Humus is the lifeblood that makes soil, soil. If all season long, some plants are seeding but some are just getting started, then soil is being created over a longer period than if you had a mono crop that all matured at once.

      3.Summer Fallow is bare land. In that time all organic materials, even freshly added compost and manure will breakdown into carbon and dissapate into the atmosphere. This is why a compost pile shrinks; the material is carbon based and returns to carbon in the gas form.This is why adding manure and compost is a good thing, but doesnt give you more soil. It disapears over time. What gives you the rich, chocolate cake soil is humus in the soil. Humus can only be created by living root systems that collaborate with the fungi and microorganisms in the soil.
      When this system is fully functional, you do not need to replace what you take from a field. The plant matter itself DOESNT COME OUT OF DIRT. IT COMES OUT OF THE AIR.
      Just like when compost breaks down and reverts back to gaseous carbon, the plant uses photosynthesis to pull carbon from the air and build leaves and stems etc.
      If the soil system is functioning properly, you do not need to replace what you take.

      4. Sythetic nitrogen stops the communication between plant roots and fungi/microorganisms.
      Naturally, the plant will signal to the fungi/bacteria what it needs, and they bring it. The fungi even transfer water to the plant , and can bring water from20 feet away. In exchange, the fungi/bacteria act as a parasite, tapping into the root system and eating some of the glucose that the plant has created through photosythesis.

      When nitrogen is applied, the plant stops talking to its neighbors and the system dies.

      • Bee permalink
        January 8, 2015 5:14 am

        Theresa, your comments are very interesting to a long-time gardener/rancher such as moi. I think there’s a really important key in them: “if/when the soil system is functioning fully.” Very few of us have a fully functioning system, and even fewer of us (I suspect) really understand the tiny details we need to adjust to improve the system. So much of our gardening is trial and error, rather like what happens when one plants an open-pollinated plant and saves seeds. Over the years, we can create a perfectly adapted plant that is just right for our conditions. If we pay attention, we can do something very similar in the garden. I also think there are many roads to Rome, as the old saying goes. For example, I’ve tried mulch, cover cropping, till/no till. I use many intensive gardening practices, but I don’t believe in double-digging — partly because as I get older, I’m not willing to put in that much time and effort, partly because I never was convinced that it made a difference. Nita uses dry-land gardening, but my summer dry period is three times as long as hers and I would need about six times as much ground (and I’m still not sure if it would work, although I’m experimenting here and there). She’s gardening in an area that has had good land stewardship for over 100 years; I’m working with a ranch that was essentially abandoned for at least 50. Nita’s system works for her, as evidenced by her harvests. Mine is working better each year for me — hopefully, by the time my grandkids take over, I’ll be passing on a system that’s better than it was when I started on it. In the meantime, I’m reading your posts with great interest!

  12. copperbounty permalink
    January 8, 2015 8:43 am

    Bee 🙂
    Regretfully I can come off as “pushy” lol. But, it’s actually excitement, interest overflowing…
    These concepts are new to me, but now that I see it and confirm it with my own trials and errors, it all makes sence, and I feel that EVERYONE needs to know this stuff lol.
    My husbands’ eyes glaze over, so I also realize not everyone cares that much.

    I realize that MOH has great gardens, I see the photos! I am naive to think she isn’t ahead if the game on this.
    But, if people can learn this soil cycle, then make adaptations where nescessary they are set, and it’s no longer a guessing game; you are in control. Also, to have the soil functioning properly isn’t a delicate and complicated thing really. Just a few basic principles that must be applied.

    I just want to better my hay lands and pasture; 20 years ago our hayland was disked, which turned the 1″ of top-soil up-side-down. We get roughly 1000 lbs hay per acre on a dry year. Not that great. We rent the quarter across from us so we hayed 180 acres to get 149 bales this dry year.
    So this was the motivation for going to the Building Soil seminars etc. So I know exactly what I’m going to try, and why, and should see improvements in yield based on all that I have learned.

    I’m not an enviro, or a permacultuist or a hippie. But this concept applies to all those types plus is being discussed now on international government levels.
    When soil is degraded, plant life is lacking or non-existent, humus has died and left (carbon in the air)
    That is what global-warming is apparently; too much carbon in the atmosphere.
    Scientists have it figured that if we re-establish the degraded soils ( get some variety growing again, and graze it properly) this in turn will create humus in the soil, which is really trapped carbon in the soil.
    The scientist I saw talk was from Australia, Christine Jones, and she is in collaboration with Aus. Gov. on carbon capture to reduce emissions. She states: if Australians can increase soil carbon ( humus) by 0.5 % on only 2% of their agricultural lands, that would capture all of Australia’s carbon emissions and reduce greenhouse gas. And if good humus is present it absolutely means good hay/pasture lands, maybe even annual crops too = more food.
    If this can be done globally, greenhouse gases would be reduced to pre-industrial levels.
    It’s an idea that soil degradation is more to blame for climate change than oil.

    If you have access to you-tube, I strongly recommend watching this 20 min TED talk featuring Allan Savory. Google it. Title sounds iffy, but if you’re a rancher, you NEED to watch this.
    Let me know what you think of it:)


  13. copperbounty permalink
    January 9, 2015 10:44 am

    Shutting up now…:)

  14. January 14, 2015 1:45 pm

    SO…Part 2? Come on. Give us the straight poop.

    • January 14, 2015 5:03 pm

      Slave driver! I had soooo many emails to answer…just couldn’t get ‘er done. It’s in draft, just working out the kinks.

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