My last post was rapturous about springtime, and it is a time of rapture and delight, especially in cold places. However, it has its less rapturous bits as well, and one of them is the annual barn cleaning that follows the melting of the snow that has been blocking off the wide double doors through which we can take a wheelbarrow.
From December to March or April, we simply don’t clean out the barn. This sounds as if it might be gross, but it really isn’t - we keep layering on bedding, and sufficient carbon keeps it from smelling bad - earthy and barnish, sure, but not particularly icky. We don’t just do this because we’re lazy - this is good husbandry for our climate. The barn has cement floors, left over from its days as a garage, and those cement floors get cold in the winter. A very thick layer of bedding, some of it composting at the bottom and giving off heat is better for the animals. Moreover, cleaning out the barn would involve throwing open the doors for the whole day - some days this is good, but our barn is already pretty well ventilated, and during the coldest weather (-27 was our lowest temp this year), throwing all the accumulated heat of composting and the heat the animals give off out of the barn. Plus we’d have to kick the critters out, and frankly, the chickens especially have no interest in going out in 3 foot drifts of snow.
So there are several months of accumulated manure, plus the food scraps that the chickens didn’t eat, plus bit of food, hair, feathers that come off the critters. Cleaning this sounds like it would be rather horrible, but oddly, both Eric and I find it kind of fun. It is physical and strenuous, but not that unpleasant. We have both found that the easiest way to clean the barn is with snow shovels, which do a great job of getting down the bottom of the mess. Once we’ve got a wheelbarrow full, we start dividing up the rest of the work, he shovels, I put the top layer on the compost pile and the rest of it on the garden beds, and then hack up with a hoe anyplace it has become too dry and calcified. The whole project is the kind of afternoon’s work that makes you feel like you are fully entitled to collapse on the couch with a cup of tea afterwards.
This year’s manure accumulation was sufficient to almost entirely cover the garden beds and fruit trees on the side yard, plus the courtyard permaculture plantings. I’ll be able to finish off the rest of that part of the yard with the remaining compost from the load of horse manure I bartered with a neighbor (she gets room in our hay barn to store her horse’s hay for the winter, we get composted manure - yay!) last fall and never got onto the garden.
The front yard garden and plantings, however, are sadly unmanured. Which means we have to go seeking the stuff. Fortunately, we have a horse farm across the street, another around the corner, alpacas down the road and four dairy farms within short range. The barter arrangement I mentioned before, plus the results of other farmer’s barn cleanings (the standard response to requests for manure here is “Please, take it!”) means that we will be rich with organic matter and fertility for our gardens.
And this is no small issue. It is tough to make enough compost to cover even a moderate sized garden, much less the one we have. One can purchase inputs for one’s farm, but these are costly, and many come from far away places. Animal manures represent (mostly) a balanced fertilizer, when they are properly used to fertilize pasture, or handled correctly. Unfortunately, nearly all industrial animal agriculture treats animal manures in ways that not only unfit them for garden use, but make them contaminants and destructive toxins. Industrial manures, often laden with antibiotics and chemicals, and held in vast lagoons, unmixed with the carbonaceous material that renders the stuff into usable compost and mutes the odor, are toxic, atmosphere destroying, water contaminating, and deeply destructive. On that scale, they are as unlike the manure in my barn as anything could be.
And this is one of the big deals - perhaps the biggest. Decent food yields depend on decent soil fertility. Most of our fertilizers are mined or chemically produced using large quantities of fossil fuels - and, as last year showed, are vulnerable to dramatic price increases, when fossil fuels do. There are also long term isues with phosphorous availability, as well as high costs to divorcing the organic matter in manures from the chemical constituents of fertility - ie, from dumping chemical fertilizers on the ground instead of manuring. Plus, marginally profitable as most farming is, having to buy more inputs can be the difference between making a profit or not.
Now out in the country where I am, manure access not a major problem. But in denser areas, where most people purchase compost or manures or other inputs that are trucked in, the question of fertility is a long term concern - and a serious one, because in a lower energy world, we’re going to need to grow more food where people actually live.
One possible answer is to divert urine, which is (mostly) sterile, and can provide much of the fertility (without the quantity of organic matter) that a garden needs. Another possibility is large scale humanure composting, on the municipal level. One way or another, we’re going to have to deal with the fact that in the US, the major source of manure comes from an animal with two legs, a large brain and a beer can ;-). There is a very good chance that in the next few decades we will no longer have the option of treating our manures as waste. The project of readapting our infrastructure to use them should be a priority, because of the terrible consequences of not carefully handling human outputs.
Meanwhile, back to my barn, we spread the partly composted manures on the side yard garden - I won’t be planting there until the fence goes up in a couple of weeks (keeping the poultry and goats out), so there’s time for everything to settle in. I’ll go out and broadfork the beds to loosen things up and begin to incorporate today or tomorrow, depending on whether the predicted rain shows up or not.
Shoveling manure is one of those things that we imagine, if we haven’t done it, to be intolerable, the symbol of the misery of agriculture, the horrible side effect of our reliance on animals. And if I were channelling pig shit from a thousand industrially raised pigs into a giant manure lagoon, or cleaning out a chicken house with 60,000 hens in it, I’d sure agree. But my animals don’t produce manure as a unpleasant consequence of being alive - manure is one of their gifts to me. We don’t see their manure as a waste product to be managed, but as an output that we benefit from - my goats produce milk *and* manure for my garden. My chickens give me eggs *and* chicken manure that makes my corn grow tall. Viewed this way, and on a human, rather than industrial scale, it becomes not only a manageable, but desirable thing.
And while I don’t always love doing it, with good management, on a home scale, it is really no more unpleasant than changing diapers, perhaps a bit less. And at the root, I know that the decentralization of animal production that I’m practicing, modelling and that I can perhaps help others begin is the answer to much of the contaminating effect of industrial animal production, and also to the problem of how to get a decent yield out of your cucumbers. Cleaning out the barn is just one small step in solving our larger problems.