It’s good stuff

The Scoop on Poop

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

The Scoop on Poop

Brian Athearn cleans out his chicken coop. Composted chicken manure is great for leafy greens.  

To keep farm animals healthy and happy and a barnyard in the less offensive range of the odor spectrum, farmers have to clean up what their animals put out on a daily basis. It’s not just on bright spring days, with that oceany bite to the wind that carries some of the stink away. Farmers are out there working in the heavy, humid, scent-clinging air of late summer, and when the icy winter rain lashes them in the face every time they open the chicken coop door.

So, what is a farmer to do with all that poop? Unlike human waste, which runs through an elaborate underground tunnel system leading to who-knows-where septic tanks and town sewers, farm manure is the sole responsibility of a farmer and her pitchfork. Farmers like Debby Farber of Blackwater Farm in West Tisbury understand the potential energy trapped in those steaming dung piles, and know just how to harness it. The leavings of barnyard animals are high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the very same nutrients that hungry vegetable plants gobble greedily from our garden soil to make them big and strong.

Generally, the soil-enriching process begins with composting, for two reasons: to avoid “fertilizer burn” and to kill the undesirables. Most fresh manure has too much nitrogen for plants. It can burn a plant, meaning the roots or the crown of the plants become dehydrated and part or all of the foliage turns brown, some sometimes killing the entire plant. Composting also kills weed seeds that pass through an animal during digestion, as well as any pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella, that might be lurking around. Simply put, composting manure means amassing it in a big pile, adding in some carbon-containing materials (bedding materials like straw and wood chips are excellent for this), and turning the pile every few days to aerate it.

The inside of a compost pile gets really warm (ideally around 140 degrees) as bacteria engage in the decomposition process. That’s why it’s called “hot” or “active” composting. All that heat uses up oxygen, which the bacteria need to survive. Turning the pile introduces more oxygen, which keeps the bacteria going, which keeps the temperature up, which keeps the decomposition happening. The resulting product—compost—can best be described as “soil steroids,” because it’s able to help create abundance in a once barren, sandy patch of land.

Methods for incorporating this enhancement vary. Some farmers till it in with the tractor, after a crop of winter rye has developed a deep enough root structure. Some put a little under every tomato seedling during transplanting. Chickens do a great job of scratching it in all on their own.

Debby calls what she does “trial and error” farming, and has taught my husband, Brian, and me a thing or two about farming and keeping a positive outlook. If we confess a newbie-farmer mistake, she responds with sympathy and practical advice: “You’ll just do it different next year. It’s a learning process.” There’s always another growing season, another chance to apply (literally) what you’ve learned. As farmers, we are continually given opportunities to complete the cycle—to feed our animals veggie scraps grown in our soil enriched by the manure of those animals who are fed veggie scraps. From one end of the farm, to the other.