Well-Managed Livestock Manure Is A Farmer’s Best Friend

Dealing with animal excrement doesn’t have to stink! Put that livestock manure to work on the farm with management practices that yield nutrient-rich fertilizer.

by Shawn and Beth Dougherty
PHOTO: Heather Reeder/Shutterstock

Ask a homesteader about manure and they may tell you it’s their biggest chore—or their best friend. The truth is that manure can be both, and learning to make the most of its benefits while minimizing the work it entails is a key to getting the best out of our homesteads.

The good news is that your farm—your animals, pastures and gardens—is there to help you do it right. So put down your pitchfork and check out these ways to get your farm really growing.

Magical Manures

Think of the living community that is your homestead as an endless, intricate web. Sunlight, rainfall and air are the raw materials for a photosynthesis-driven energy cycle that passes through plants, plant-eating animals, omnivores, carnivores and soil.

All livestock make mounds of manure. And manure is one of the most important ways that solar energy becomes available to the soil to fuel more plant growth—more food—for animals and people. 

So where do we need manure? The answer is practically every­where! But without good man­agement, manure can be a messy, smelly, pest-breeding problem. It doesn’t always land where you want it most. 

Luckily, you can develop patterns for animal management that get the most mileage out of your manure with a minimum of labor input. And when you do, you’ve got a win-win situation. 

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livestock manure compost
Shawn & Beth Dougherty

Poo in the Pasture 

Manure is transformed solar energy from plant leaves, so it makes sense that we want to put the manure back where it came from: in the ground that grew the plants. Pasture is the most obvious source of diet for many of our animals. 

Ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats, as well as pastured poultry including turkeys, ducks and geese, area all enthusiastic grazers. You can include pigs managed on pasture, too.

These animals partner with us in turning the abundant sunlight that pours down on our homesteads every day into meat, milk and manure. 

Read more: Use pigs to build better compost!

Keeping it Moving

But if they’re all out on pasture already, and the pasture is where we require manure, what’s the need for management? Aren’t the animals already taking care of that?

Well, yes and no—usually no. Conventionally grazed animals—animals turned loose in a large pasture for extended periods of time to wander and browse at will—will, indeed, leave their manure somewhere in that pasture. But the bulk of it will be deposited in those places where the animals go to drink or rest.

Think by the water trough, under a shade tree or in the barn.

More will land on the hard-packed, bare soil of regularly used trails. While these places build up loads of nutrients that will quickly become toxic to plant growth, the rest of the pasture will still experience a deficit of fertility. So manure needs management—even in the pasture. 

The good news is there is a simple fix for this problem: attentive, thoughtful grazing practices. This goes by lots of names—rotational, holistic, regenerative, to name a few—all of which require the frequent, even daily or twice-daily, shift of grazing area.

By confining animals—usually by means of portable electric fence—on small paddocks, the effects of grazing and manuring are concentrated. Moving them frequently assures that these effects are spread over the whole pasture.

A long rest period before the grazing animals return to the area allows complete recovery of the forage. It also encourages complete integration of manure into the soil. 

Whatever species of grass-eater you raise, managed grazing is necessary for healthy animals and productive soils. You don’t need a PhD or a course in pasture science or a master class in grass management to begin a program of regenerative grazing.

Putting in place a few principles will get you started. In no time your animals, plants and soils will be teaching you the details. 

livestock manure chickens
Shawn & Beth Dougherty

The Cleanup Crew

With all that manure out there, you can look forward to improved growth in your pasture plants with every rotation, right? Well, again, yes and no. You’ve got the nutrients in the right place—back on the grass they came from. But it’s in piles, not spread around where they can fertilize the whole pasture. 

Mounds of manure, if they aren’t soon incorporated into the top layer of soil and plant litter, are going to breed flies. Not only that, but plant growth around a large manure pile will also be “hot”—excessively high in nitrogen. Grazing animals will avoid the area.

So we need to spread those manure piles around. Does that sound like a lot of work? It would be if we had to do it ourselves.

Instead, we’ll get the farm to do it for us. 

Scratching poultry, such as chickens, is one solution. Following grass-eaters with scratching birds is a good way to help nature help us while it helps itself. Tearing into cow pies after parasite larvae, maggots, beetles and worms, chickens perform several tasks at once:

  • Reduce the farm’s population of pest insects (and your feed bills as well)
  • Eliminate parasites that might otherwise reinfect livestock
  • Spread manure, all at the same time.


Putting Wildlife on the Payroll

But chickens aren’t the only manure-spreaders around. Lots of other farm helpers are just as willing to do the job.

Wild birds such as quail, prairie hens and turkeys—all scratching birds, like chickens—love the chance to forage in your pasture. Soil critters such as earthworms and dung beetles can form manure-processing armies that mobilize almost as soon as a cow flop lands. They can incorporate manure into the soil in a few days.

For a double-whammy, larvae of the yellow dung fly consume manure while adults prey on pest fly species. All of these and many more natural partners are poised to spread your farm’s manure for you. 

There’s just one catch about these wild dung-managers, though. Unlike chicken populations, which the farmer can increase simply by placing an order for chicks, wild populations take a little time to develop. 

Think about it. When you add ruminants (and ruminant manure) to your farm’s ecosystem, you create a new opportunity for biodiversity. You send an invitation to helper species, a notification that this farm is becoming more biologically active, more productive.

Those species will begin reproducing at a great rate. But they may be starting from almost zero. So it can be a while before you see generous populations. 

Patience is key. If you want nature to do a job for you, you have to let her do it in her own time.

Read more: These 7 tools will help you better manage your farm’s manure.

Field, Fold & Fallow

While we’re making sure of balanced fertility in our pastures, lots of other places need nutrients, too. Our animal management practices can help us get it there.

For instance, take the ancient practices of fold and fallow—a sort of rotational management for cropland and garden. Before the invention of chemical fertilizers, farmers used their herds and flocks to build fertility in places where crops were to be grown for harvest.

Between crops—when the land was resting, or fallow—these would be used as a night pen for sheep, goats, geese and other small grazers. 

Confined to limited spaces, the livestock laid down a generous layer of manure, adding copious showers of nitrogen-rich urine into the bargain. And all of this fell exactly where it was most needed. It fell where the crops would grow. 

Bale Grazing

The same benefits can be accomplished with bale grazing. In empty gardens, or anywhere you want to drop a load of fertility, feeding hay on bare soil can be a good option. This is the same trick we’d use if we wanted to turn any bare land into pasture.

Not only manure and urine, but all the “wasted” hay goes directly on the ground. There, tiny living things return the organic matter to the soil. 

Green Manures

Green manures can be used in a similar way. Plant a cover crop or green manure. Then, when it is ready to be mowed or tilled, let your grazing animals do the work instead. In addition to mowing, they’ll drop their dung—right where it’s wanted, no manure-hauling necessary. 

Smaller livestock can be particularly useful in this way. Their diminutive size means they won’t cause soil compaction. Poultry in sliding pens are our favorite garden grazers, tilling their nitrogen-charged droppings right into the soil along with shredded cover crops. 

Free animal food, plus manure, tillage and shredded plant material dumped right on the garden…. All the homesteader has to do is put her animals in the right place.

Concentrated Fertility

Sometimes, though, it isn’t practical to put livestock on the garden. Often the places where we want a boost in fertility are too small to be used as pasture or fold. What’s needed here is a source of collected manure, and, fortunately, getting that is easy.

Whenever animals must be confined for a time, we have an opportunity to harvest some concentrated fertility—with deep bedding.

Deep Bedding

Hay, straw, ground corn cobs or shredded corn stalks—even sawdust or shredded paper—are high-carbon plant material. This material will absorb and tie down nitrogen (poos and pees) that would otherwise be lost to evaporation or leaching.

Putting deep bedding under our penned livestock keeps them dry and comfortable. It also forms the basis for valuable manure compost, rich in nitrogen and minerals. Composting this material produces some of the finest possible soil amendments.

And composting doesn’t have to mean lots of turning and temperature-reading. Bedding containing manure and urine—like many kinds of organic matter—must be allowed to age before it can safely be applied to human food gardens. But that doesn’t have to mean extra work for the gardener.

Waiting Game

Clean compost can be accomplished with a minimum of labor—if we are content to wait. When your compost has broken down to a crumbly black mass—a process which may take several months—it’s safe to apply to your food garden beds. 

As a homesteader, you already know that manure is your friend. And that’s a good thing, because there’s always so much of it!

Fortunately, the living things on the farm—our partners in the ecosystem—already know how to deal with every spare nutrient. All we must do is to help them help us. Good planning, with careful attention to the patterns of nature, are our best guides to building a homestead that is clean, fertile and beautiful. 

More Information

Go with the Flow 

We can simplify the work involved with confined animals by planning our barns and pens to facilitate manure handling. Sometimes this is as simple as making doorways and gates wide enough to accommodate a wheelbarrow or garden cart or building pens with removable sides.

Or it might involve designing a holding area for ruminants that can double as a pig pen. After the ruminants move on, turn in the pigs and let them root to aerate bedding pack and convert it into compost.

Flow is another consideration. Manure and soiled bedding from poultry and ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) can be used as food and bedding for pigs. Arranging your livestock holding facilities so that wastes can be passed easily into the pig pen makes for one-step manure handling. 

On our farm, cows or sheep confined for calving, lambing or weather issues are penned right next to the pigs. Daily, rejected hay from the ruminants’ manger becomes their bedding. Their soiled bedding is forked over the fence into the pig pen.

Likewise, the poultry brooder is located just west of the pig pen, making it easy to turn accumulated chick litter into pig food. What the pigs don’t eat, they combine with their own manure, urine and bedding. This gives a biological boost to this future soil amendment.

livestock manure pigs
Shawn & Beth Dougherty
Thinking Outside the Fence 

With the rise in awareness over the past few decades of the benefits of holistically managed grazing, it’s important not to fall into the mistake of assuming that all animals must be on pasture all the time, no matter what the circumstance.

Temporarily penned animals are not necessarily unhappy or unhealthy! On the contrary, conditions of weather, parturition (birthing), of food sourcing or provision, or the state of the pasture itself, can easily make confinement a temporary best option for your livestock and your farm. 

Luckily, this is also a great time for collecting some concentrated soil nutrients! Sheep barned for lambing, cows held in a lounging area until soil firms up in spring, pigs confined in the fall to be fattened on abundant garden surpluses, and poultry shut in at night to keep predators at bay, are all depositing loads of manure and urine high in soil-food.

Capturing those nutrients lets us move them where they’ll do the farm the most good. 

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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