How to Turn Your Cattle’s Poop Into Amazing Natural Plant Fertilizer

As spring and warmer temperatures move north in Maine, farmers are opening the doors of barns and chicken coops to take in the fresh air. But as enjoyable as that is, they also face a slightly less enjoyable annual task: cleaning up a winter’s worth of livestock and poultry droppings.

Although the annual spring cleaning is not a favorite chore, it is very necessary for animal health and well-being. This is because animal and bird manure can contain bacteria, parasites or other disease-causing organisms.

Then there’s the question of what to do with all that manure that’s been building up all winter. Left alone it will start to stink, so piled up farm animal waste should be dealt with before it becomes a health hazard to livestock and humans.

One of the best ways to get rid of animal manure is to use it as a natural plant fertilizer and soil amendment. You just need to be smart about it.

Adding manure to the soil in the garden or on a field before planting provides nutrients needed for plant growth and helps improve the soil’s ability to hold water. But it’s important to know when your livestock’s poop is ready to be natural fertilizer, because fresh manure can contain human-causing bacteria that can contaminate your vegetables.

“A major problem in raising animals is their by-products [and] there’s no getting around it,” said Scott Huber of Itty Bitty Farm in Columbia Falls. “If they eat, they poop.”

The silver lining to this, according to Huber, is all the poop can be turned into natural fertilizer when composted properly. At Itty Bitty Farm, they raise chickens, quails, pigs and rabbits. They all poop.

Not all manure is created equal, and poop from different animals or birds contains different levels of nutrients. Knowing this, you can use it without damaging the plants or the soil.

This is where composting comes in.

Chickens, for example, are among the best sources of natural fertilizer. Their manure contains high levels of nitrogen in addition to lesser amounts of phosphorus and potassium. Plants need nitrogen, but too much can damage or kill them.

“Chicken poop is considered ‘hot’ because of its high nitrogen content,” Huber said. “It needs time to break down and ‘cool down’ before being added to your garden soil.”

Adding fresh chicken manure to young plants can actually burn the leaves and stems.

Chicken manure cleaned from a chicken coop is often mixed with straw or wood shavings used as bedding. It can all be composted together in a trash can or even a black plastic construction debris bag. If you put it in an open container, plan to add water and stir it every few weeks. It takes about six months for chicken manure to decompose enough to soften the nitrogen content to safe levels.

With fresh cow manure, the problem isn’t the nitrogen, it’s the high levels of ammonia that can damage your plants. To make composting pure cow manure easier, mix it with straw, ash or lime and let it age in a bile or bin for at least four months before using it.

Pig manure is another good source of natural fertilizer, but it must be completely composted because many pigs carry E. coli, Salmonella, or parasitic worms in their manure.

The trick is to compost hog manure at high temperatures, frequently turning the pile and adding organic matter like dried grass, dead leaves, kitchen scraps or weeds. It should be composted for about a year before spreading it in your garden.

“I make a big compost pile that we add over the course of about a year,” Huber said. “I use the tractor bucket to turn it over every week or two so the fresh food mixes in with what’s already cooking to help it break down faster.”

Huber said temperatures in the center of his stack can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit and they will start to smoke. The end product, he said, looks like bagged compost that can be purchased at a store.

“If you raise livestock or poultry, you should compost their manure,” Huber said. “You get free, nutrient-dense fertilizer with a little more effort than you already put into caring for your animals.”

Leon E. Hill