In this Grow Guide, we’re taking it back to the origins of agriculture and jumping headfirst into the original fertilizer — animal manure.
Back in the day, when human civilization first began cultivating plants for food, manure was the perfect animal byproduct that enhanced yields and overall health of the plants and soil. I’m not sure who the first person was to think “Hey, let’s use poo to feed the plants we will eventually eat!” but hey, if it works, it works.
While using manure was popular in agriculture during the turn of the century, since then its use has declined in commercial production due to three primary causes:
Modern farms are mono-cropping (growing one species) rather than tending to a diverse farm. This led to farmers specializing in one crop, separating plant and livestock production so they no longer grew harmoniously together. This separation between plant and livestock leads us to reason number two
2. Manure is Heavy
Manure is expensive to transport when it doesn’t originate on the farm. The cost of transport outweighs the benefits of manure for many large-scale operations.
3. Chemical Fertilizers
The increased availability of chemical fertilizers took the agriculture industry by storm and stole the spotlight from many traditional, organic farming practices.
Due to the harsh practices of conventional agriculture, a majority of our soil in America is depleted and unhealthy — which makes it hard for plants to thrive! Manure is a priceless addition to depleted soil that adds organic matter and nutrients back into the earth. The simple inclusion of manure into exhausted soil improves the soil structure, increases the water retention of the soil, improves drainage, provides a slow-release of nutrients, reduces erosion, and attracts beneficial soil organisms. All of these benefits heal the earth, and over time (5-7 years give or take), the land will be ready to use for responsible food production again.
So not only is animal manure a great fertilizer to organically feed your plants but it also acts as a healing soil amendment that rejuvenates the land.
Manures are also an earth-friendly, “green” fertilizer that reduce environmental pollution. So sure, you could go out and buy a bottle of chemical fertilizer from the store, but why pay for something that you can produce in your own yard or find for free in your community?
In my experience, chemical fertilizers bring more problems than they solve. They destroy life in the soil which attracts pests and disease to your garden, on the other hand, manure actually builds the health of your soil and attracts beneficial organisms to bring your garden to life.
Another advantage manure has over synthetic fertilizers it that manure is a complete fertilizer; meaning it contains a variety of micronutrients as well as all the necessary macronutrients, Nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P), and Potassium (K).
Every animal’s manure offers something unique. So let’s take a look at what each animal has to offer and which would work best for your gardening situation.
Chicken manure is a great all-around fertilizer and typically the go-to for homesteaders looking for an on-site source of nutrients. It contains all the macronutrients (N, P, and K) but is particularly high in nitrogen (roughly 2.8%) which is exactly what we want in a all-purpose fertilizer. The only imperfection with chicken manure is that it needs to be composted before use. When used raw, the ammonium nitrogen can burn your plants and no one wants that. Composting chicken manure allows lets the nutrients within the manure to “age” so that they are more available to be slurped up by your hungry plants. At TKO Reserve, we sweep up the chicken coop (bedding/straw and all) every couple of weeks and throw it into our compost bin. Throw some water on it every few weeks and use a pitchfork to flip it for aeration. You can also let your chickens run wild in the pile and they’ll aerate for you while they search for bugs! In about 6-9 months, the manure will be completely composted and ready for use — yeah I know it’s not instant gratification but patience is a virtue with farm life. Once the chicken manure is composted it is ready to be used; it can either be watered in as a topdress (directly on the soil) or you can stretch the life of the manure by making compost teas to water or foliar spray your plants. Chickens are perfect for that urban gardener because you only need a small backyard or side yard. Plus, with a flock of chickens you get the best fresh eggs daily!
Pig manure is a commonly overlooked source of nutrients. Ever since commercial agriculture came along, pig manure has been riddled with antibiotics, e.coli, salmonella, and other unwanted parasites. However, if you have pigs that are healthy and eat an organic diet, their manure can be used as a nutritious fertilizer. Some farmers use pig manure right out of the field, other farmers are more cautious and prefer to hot compost any kind of manure before introducing it to plants to ensure undesirable organisms are killed. To play it safe, at TKO Reserve, we compost pig manure for a couple months before using it in the garden. To compost, throw the pig manure in a pile with dried yard clippings, dead leaves, and some kitchen scraps and allow to decompose for a couple of months — watering and stirring every few weeks — and soon enough, it will turn into a potent amendment for which your plants will go crazy. Pig manure isn’t very high in nitrogen so some farmers blow it off as a fertilizer, but it is very high in phosphorous which is an essential nutrient that regulates protein synthesis and cell development in plants. Plus, pig manure still adds organic matter and nutrients to the earth which increases the health of your soil and in turn, your plants. When applied to the soil (either tilled in or top-dressed) pig manure can also help build plants’ resistance to pests and disease.
Llamas and Alpacas
Alpaca and Llama poo are some of the best manures on the market because it is chock-full of all the macronutrients necessary for vigorous plant growth and it doesn’t need to be composted before use. This means alpaca and llama manure, better known as “Green Beans,” can go straight from the field to the garden which is extremely helpful because you don’t have to wait 6-9 months before use. These “beans” are small concentrated pellets of all three macronutrients (NPK) that slow-release over time as they integrate with the soil which make them great for feeding long-flowering plants like cannabis. It’s this slow release combined with the general low organic matter content that allows alpaca and llama manure to be applied directly to plants. Fun fact, and bonus for you, alpacas have an instinctual need to have the tallest look-out point so they designate a communal poo-pile to create a high hill to stand on. This is one of the reasons why alpacas are so great — you don’t have to scavenge through an entire field collecting manure, it’s all right in one or two nice spots for you! Another benefit alpacas and llamas have going for them is that their manure is completely odorless. Unlike pig or cow manure, alpaca and llama beans have very little parasitic activity and no traces of e.coli — another huge bonus. On average, alpacas and llamas produce about 1 pound of manure per day. So with a small herd (they are pack animals and prefer to have company) you can produce a ton of alpaca and/or llama beans each year — not only would that sustain your own farm but you could potentially sell the excess to other farmers as it is a very in-demand fertilizer. Alpaca manure can be used by directly applying to the soil or making a compost tea for soil drenching or foliar spraying (but be sure to foliar spray in the plant’s vegetative state only).
Rabbits are small, low-maintenance animals that are easy to introduce into any size homestead. Their manure is higher in nitrogen than cows, goats, sheep, horses, or chickens (~3%)! It also contains higher levels of phosphorous than most other manures. Along with a balanced dose of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, rabbit manure also provides a wide range of micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium, boron, zinc, and sulfur just to name a few. Similar to alpaca beans, rabbit manure is one of the few manure types that won’t burn your plants, meaning you can apply directly to the plants. This characteristic alone rises rabbit poo to the top ranks of natural fertilizer choices. Farmers typically call their rabbit manure “bunny berries,” because they are small, dry, odorless pellets — making it perfect for direct garden use. There are many ways to incorporate these potent “berries” into your garden; they’re great as a top-dress to water into the soil, they can be mixed into the soil during transplanting, or they can be steeped in water to create an active compost tea.
Sheep manure is another one of the top animal fertilizers out there because it can also be used “cold,” meaning it can be used directly from the field without having to compost for 6-9 months. According to the USDA, sheep manure contains more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium than both horse and cow manure. It is also the manure with the highest potassium content which is the nutrient responsible for building healthy root systems. Another few bonuses, sheep manure is odorless and pelletized which makes it easy for collection and distribution. Sheep manure has a high content of organic matter which is great for soil-building as it attracts and feeds beneficial soil organisms. While it doesn’t need to be composted, sheep manure is a great compost activator if your pile isn’t quite heating up to your satisfaction. When ready for use, sheep manure can be applied as a top-dress on your soil, it can be worked in your soil in the fall to saturate the earth throughout the winter, or it can be steeped in water to make compost tea — the possibilities are endless!
Goats are amazing little creatures, not only as pets, but also as free fertilizing machines! Similar to sheep, alpacas, and rabbits, goat manure is a cold manure and can be used as a fertilizer straight from the field without risk of burning your plants. Goats produce odorless, small, dry pellets that make the poo-handling process painless. While not the leader of nitrogen content, goat manure is remarkably high in phosphorous which is essential for healthy plant growth and high yields.
Horse and Cow
Horse and cow manure, while not at the top of the list, are still great fertilizers. However, horse and cow droppings require composting before use as they are more likely to carry pathogens or unwanted weed seeds. Hot composting in an active pile will kill any undesirables in the manure. Some farmers prefer to load their garden beds full of manure in the fall then cover with straw and let compost directly in the earth for the winter season, which is a great option as well! Horse and cow manure can range from 1-2% nitrogen content and 1-3% potassium. Both of these byproducts act as a fertilizer and soil-enhancer that boosts soil texture and fertility.
Now, you may be wondering, “What about worm castings, fish emulsions, and bat guano?!” And we will definitely get there, in our next Grow Guide on alternative, natural fertilizers, but this Guide was focused on farm animals that can be easily raised on-site (which can be done with worms and fish as well but we’ll dive into that on another day).
In general, when you’re working with manure as a fertilizer, it’s important to use it properly. Using too little leads to nutrient deficiencies in your plants, and using too much can lead to nitrate leaching, phosphorus runoff, and other environmental consequences.
When top-dressing any manure, you want to mix it with other biomass such as straw or fallen leaves from your yard. This will begin to create an active mulch layer that gives a home to all the beneficial soil organisms you will attract, and it also protects your precious topsoil from erosion.
While many growers may not have the space, time, or energy to dedicate to raising animals, the local co-op is a great place to meet other farmers who may have excess manure for sale (or to trade for a bottle of whiskey).
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