Humanure Q&A

Humanure is a part of our farm.  It’s part of our land stewardship plan.  Humanure is also a part of your life, it just may not be part of your own stewardship plan.  We work to manage our resources carefully.  That means it belongs on the blog…just maybe with less frequency than you have seen lately.

I got an email from a reader with a few questions and comments about humanure.  I thought I would share my responses.  Keep in mind, we’re doing our best here but I’m far from an expert.  If you have a comment on any of my responses or any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to share in the comment section.  Also, as I have said before, this is more “how-we” than “how-to”.

With Humanure Handbook I do have a few questions that I keep hoping he’ll answer before I get to the end…aren’t there issues with compost piles leaching? That seems to be one of his objections to septic fields yet, surely compost will leach to some extent as well.

If the compost pile is built correctly, I’m not too worried about leachate.  Within hours of adding to the compost pile, the pile heats up to several hundred degrees.  Use big amounts of carbon at the bottom, always add to the top.  You’ll end up with a carbon barrier at the bottom, a healthy layer of compost above that and all your hot stuff further up.  I also maintain a buffer of sawdust around my compost piles when heavy rains hit because I have seen chicken…stuff…ooze out of the pile when it gets saturated.  I have to believe that happens underground too. I should also cover the pile during periods of heavy rain.  Finally, the compost pile, unlike a septic tank, moves from year to year.  This year’s is out in the pasture.  Last year’s is next to the machine shed.  The year before that was by the garage.  I don’t believe I can overload the soil with leachate in one year with 312 buckets and 1000 chicken’s guts…especially since I work so hard to put a heavy layer of carbon under the pile and work to control saturation.  The wife adds that she thinks by the time the cooked compost filters through the carbon base it’s going to be OK.

What do you do when someone in the family is sick – upchucking sick?  Currently I flush the bucket contents down the toilet.  Do you compost that?

Nobody has been sick like that for years.  I guess we’ll compost it.

He talks about hospitals having to have their own composting facilities carefully ensuring the temp in the compost is right for killing pathogens.  What if someone goes on antibiotics ([Husband’s] recent bout with his face infection comes to mind)?  Does that affect how you do things?

Antibiotics?  I dunno.  We really try not to use them.  I guess we’ll compost it.

We did have a very amusing family discussion about humanure, the upshot of which is that the kids begged me not to start that particular project till they were living away from home.  I have to get better at composting before I can do much with the idea anyway, so they’re safe for now.

For Pete’s sake.  Just build one. Composting skill?  How are you going to develop skill unless you’re motivated by 6 buckets of magical nastiness waiting by the back door and a husband and children who don’t think you’ll actually go through with it?  Go for it.  Quit fooling around.  Go show ’em!  The pretty girl with the braids wants to wear “Friends of the Environment Foundation” shirts so then give her a chance to make a positive contribution!  What can you use for carbon on the island?  We love having a big sawdust pile.  I use sawdust for everything now.

Again, let me know if you have any additional questions or comments.  The humanure toilet is really no big deal.  There is no sloshing, yucky mess. The carbon soaks up all the sloshing.  When you dump the bucket it just looks like wet sawdust…plus orange peels or whatever else you compost.

The Hare Pen Part 2

Why a part 2?  Because I am very happy with what I see out there.  

Black Gold.  Deposited in neat little rows on my grass.  I don’t even have to haul it.

This is where the hare pen sat all night, surrounded by polywire.  The manure isn’t very evenly distributed but that really doesn’t matter.  The earthworms say thanks.

The longer you leave them in one place the more manure they put down but the more pellets they will eat.  If you’re looking to lower your feed bill, move them more frequently.  If you are trying to increase fertility quickly, you could carry in pellets, hay, fresh clippings.  We are just using them to trim up small patches of grass around the garden.  It’s nice not to run the lawn mower.

What do pigs do?

Well, pigs eat.  Pigs manure.  Pigs sleep a lot.  Pigs drink and wallow.  The best thing pigs do is dig.

This is a post about digging.  Pigs dig for fun and to find food.  This week we put them in the pasture near the iron pile where they discovered a small pile of odd parts that had been buried in the pasture over time.  These are probably things my grandpa dropped out there 20 or more years ago.

Here’s a view of the whole pasture they left.  They did more digging further away, less closer and almost none up close.

Looking the other direction I have drawn some lines.  The further line is where the fence was.  The near line is where they stopped digging.  Why did they stop digging?

They did not dig where they manured because pigs are clean animals.  They manured near the fence and did not dig in their manure.  There is almost no manure anywhere else in the pasture.  Just there by the fence.

The pasture will recover quickly where the manure is.  The pasture will recover slowly where they dug but, in the long term, the massive disturbance will allow opportunity for plant succession that would not have happened otherwise.  There is a seed bank in the soil that will now have a chance to come to life.  There will be grass.  There will be weeds.  It will be great.

When keeping pigs on pasture it is important to leave them enough room to play, to dig, and to take care of business.  If you place too many pigs in too small of a space or leave them in one place for too long, the whole area will be defoliated.  We try to manage things so when the pigs run out of fresh grass to eat they are moved to a new location.  By that measure the pasture has a reasonable chance to recover quickly.

Good luck with your own experiments with pigs, grass and portable fence.  Things may work out differently for you.

I Need More Carbon

A friend recently commented, “You talk about fecal material a lot.”  I do.  I appreciate manure and what it can do for my soil, the soil life and the world around me.  While most people just use it to pollute drinking water, I make it work.  In order to make it work I need carbon.  Lots of carbon.

The primary use is just to keep the animals warm and dry.  Carbon also helps to sponge up nutrients, preventing odors from escaping and holding nutrients in suspension for later use.  It soaks up liquids, helping to protect the underground water supply.  It adds structure to the soil.  It acts as a weed barrier.  I could go on.

We buy carbon in several forms.

Straw bales are the first thing people think of when they think of barns.  Why straw?  It’s a local resource and is available in quantity.  It’s a by-product of raising small grains.  It is a useful tool for bedding but has its limitations.  It mats quickly, it is not very absorbant and it takes up a lot of space.  On the plus side, it adds air space to compost and rots quickly.

What is better than straw?  Wood chips.

I cut a lot of brush and run most of it through my chipper…the smaller stuff anyway.  That, and chips dropped off by the power company, help me to accumulate large windrows of wood chips.

Wood chips are large and bulky.  They do a good job stabilizing a muddy area but are unpleasant to walk on or scratch in…if you are a chicken.  They are also of limited use absorbing nutrients as there is so little surface area per unit of volume.  But they do make nice paths through the garden.

But what’s better is hardwood sawdust.  Sawdust offers greater surface area per unit of volume and is comfortable to walk on.  Cows prefer to lay on sawdust over straw.  We use it to mulch our garden beds, to bed our chickens, cows in the winter and to catch rabbit manure.

Sawdust quickly soaks up water, urine and manure, it’s easy for the chicks to scratch into, it is easy to move around with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, it is cheap and can be found locally.  We use sawdust straight from the sawmill rather than from a wood shop.  The kiln dried stuff acts and feels different.  Also, we let a pile sit out in the weather for at least a few months before we really tie into it.

Where I am, these are the three easiest forms of carbon to get my hands on.  Each are useful as bedding, build great compost and help maintain soil health.  If given the choice, I would choose a truckload of wood chips over a truckload of fresh horse manure.  It has so many more uses.

Mowing the grass part 2

The cows, as you know, get fresh grass daily.  Recently I made their pen smaller and I’m just giving them 144 sq. ft. at a time, moving them 5 or 6 times daily.  This results in excellent trampling and manuring as the grass is sheared off evenly and the weeds are either eaten or trampled.  The picture below shows a line I missed when I moved the pen a bit too far, then shows the progress beyond.  At the end of the day I’m putting something on the order of 90,000 pounds per acre across my lawn.  I could go heavier if I had more forage but since the grass is still short I have to move them frequently.

The stem in the center of this picture was a weed I watched Mable take a bite of then spit out.  I guess once they finished eating their ice cream they went back for their veggies.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not starving my cows into eating the weeds.  They just like to eat.  Check the rumen on this beauty.  The indentation between the last rib and the pelvis sucks in when the rumen is empty.  Flo is looking full.

So what are they eating?  Well, they’re on the old driveway and it’s a weedy mess.

Here is another shot showing the line between what they finished grazing and what they are just starting.

Now, there really is a bit more to it than just moving a panel and waiting for them to eat.  You have to read their manure to see if they are getting enough protein.  This looks pretty good.  A little dry but not bad.

It would be more soupy if the fast-growing green was all they were getting or if I had more clover mixed in my pasture (yard).  I don’t have much clover yet, there is a fair amount of old growth still standing here and they get half a bale of hay every night just to keep things regulated.

Beyond manure I smell them.  Yeah.  Smell their breath.  That tells me a lot about the condition of their rumen.  It should smell sweet.

There are more things I could check if I was more paranoid but if they are laying down, chewing their cud, their manure is pumpkin pie-ish, their breath is sweet, and their coats are shiny they are OK.  The real point is…look at that lawn!  They mowed it, set the weeds back and fertilized it all on solar power.

I think that’s pretty cool.

Bringing Home the Bacon

I can’t imagine how we lived before pigs.  My sister, living in town, joked that she thinks she can get away with owning a pot-bellied pig.  I think it’s an excellent idea.  They root, they eat, they manure and they don’t ask much of their keeper.  They do ask for proper management; keep them safe, well-fed, move them away from their manure regularly and treat them well.  Let the pig do what pigs are built to do.

I have yet to see any living thing that will cause soil disturbance like a grown pig.  They will dig up moles, rhizomes, worms, grubs and who knows what else.  They dig just for the pleasure of digging.  That digging, left unchecked, can create an area that looks like the surface of the moon.  However, judicious use of pig noses can renovate pastures and make a positive ecological change to the landscape.

Everything we waste can be pre-composted through our pigs.  Garden wastes can go to pigs, feed spoiled in the chick brooder, cow manure, mice from our traps…they will eat it all.  In the winter that pre-composted material goes right to the compost pile where it helps maintain a high temperature for our thermophilic composting process.  Whatever we miss is churned with the soil and bedding into the garden.

Our most recent batch are ruptures from a production floor.   Just a quick note, a “rupture” is a pig with a hernia.  Often the hernia is expressed in the belly of a female or the scrotum of a male.  In both men and in hogs, the tendency toward a hernia is genetic.  It is generally believed there isn’t a way to manage the hernia short of surgery.  I don’t in any way wish to demean the farmers I bought the pigs from.  They are close friends who run a highly-efficient formula of inputs and outputs on a schedule.  Not all animals qualify for their program.  I picked up those that were genetically disqualified.

These pigs arrived in mid-December.  Please notice the three ruptured males.  Also notice they are packed in tightly together though they have room to run.  This shot was taken within 15 minutes of the first time their feet ever hit dirt.  Chew on that for a moment.  40-60# hogs that have never touched dirt and have never been more than a few inches apart.  Finally, there are two runts in there.  They never did grow for us but tasted great.

In the back is a ruptured female with a massive belly rupture.  We call her Thing1.  Here’s a better (but not great) shot of her:

Here’s another picture of the blue pig above.  I want you to be sure I’m showing you the same batch of pigs across this post.

Click on the image to see his large rupture.  I wish I had a better shot but I don’t. The rupture is within his …male anatomy.  It bulged in three distinct lobes and a portion was raw from where it rubbed the ground.  We thought we were going to have to put him down right away.  Here is the same pig at the end of February.

Where did it go?  In fact, where did any of the ruptures go?

These pigs were scheduled to be executed because of their ruptures.  They would not have survived on the floor in their condition.  I brought them home, switched them to Fertrell feed (high in pro-biotics) fed them twice daily plus a few scraps and gave them room to run in the sunshine and fresh air.  Their gut emptied between feedings.  They burned energy running, rooting, fighting and playing.  No antibiotics, medications or belt straps involved.  Just a change in management.

This winter we just parked them on the new garden and hauled manure away daily, using them to till the soil and work in organic material.  In the spring, summer, and fall we move 3-4 pigs to a fresh 25×25 area every third or fourth day using pig quick fence from Premiere 1 Supplies.  The fencing hugs the contours well, is visible to the livestock and everybody has a healthy respect for it.

Keeping a hog around the farm or house is a great way to boost fertility, create disturbance, pre-compost wastes and feed the family but proper management is the key to health.

One final note, if you smell the pigs you need to add carbon.  Pigs don’t smell, bad managers do.

Mowing the grass

Ah, it’s that time of year again.  The birds are chirping, the toads are calling and you can’t hear any of it because the lawn mowers are running.

We opt out.  I’m not even sure where my lawn mower is.  I think it’s in the shed.  Maybe.  We used it on the 4th of July last year but not since.  I don’t mind people mowing, it’s just not for me.  It’s too noisy and I have better things to do.  Further, it all seems Rube Goldberg to me; pump oil from Ottawa, haul it to Texas, refine it, haul it to St. Louis, put it in a machine from China, cut the grass off and watch it grow back again.  No thanks.

Cows kinda like mowing grass.  Take this model here:

This model (a 2011) was originally made on a channel island called Jersey but this specific one was built just up the road.  There’s no patent protection preventing you from making your own, you just need seed stock.  Not only does it cut the grass, it fertilizes for you, tromps weeds down, aerates the soil, produces milk (unheard of in a lawn mower) and can reproduce itself.  That’s right, it’s a walking lawn mower factory!  Further it requires zero gas, just water.  Now, it doesn’t come with a manual but there are some things you should know.

1.  It MUST mow or it will die and death is an unrecoverable condition for this type of machine.  That said, death is not always an unwelcome condition for a mower.  This is a good time to note that this type of mower tastes better than others.

2.  It is better if you set things up so you only request that it mow as much grass as it can in a day and that you allow it to mow a new place every day, not returning to the first location for 90-100 days.  This not only keeps the machine busy but keeps it in good working order.  Further, you will have more and thicker grass than you have ever had before, far thicker than that of your neighbors.

3.  If managed correctly, you will lessen the need to store up grass for it to mow during the winter months.  In the picture above, the nearer model is eating fescue that has been standing since August.

4.  If you have a large amount of grass to mow each year you may need more than one mower.  This is a favorable condition.

5.  If you have a small amount of grass you may want to consider sharing mowers between neighbors.  It may also be a good idea to split the milk it will produce.  Alternatively, you may consider a smaller mower called a “sheep”.  These also reproduce, make milk and fertilize, though in far smaller quantities.

NOTE:  Please don’t confuse a goat with a lawn mower.  The goat is more like a weed eater.

Potato Time

You’ll hear conflicting opinions from old-timers concerning potato planting time.

“Plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day and they’ll all rot in the ground or have their tops frosted!”

“Always plant potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day!”

Well, if my cousin thinks it’s wise to plant corn on St. Patrick’s Day (at least a month early), I can’t hide behind my calendar.

It’s time to plant.  So, as mentioned in a previous post, I hammered in stakes and defined a 4′ wide bed with baler twine.  Here’s a shot of the bed:

I also cut and cured my potatoes in the basement.  I did this two different ways.  I simply cut some and placed them in a cardboard box, others I spread on a shelf in the basement and covered them with newspaper.  Here are the pontiacs as I weighed and cut them.  Anything over 4 ounces was cut in half, over 7.5 ounces was cut twice.  Make sure there are still two eyes on anything you cut.

Here they are two weeks later, ready to plant:

The cut and cure concept is not necessary, it’s just something you can do.  Just like the planting time above, ask any two gardeners about cutting and they’ll tell you two different answers.  Curing is the same.  We cut but did not cure last year’s potatoes and they did fine.  My sister didn’t cut anything and her potatoes will be fine.  I piled some in a box and they sprouted perfectly.  I sprouted some on a shelf and they sprouted perfectly.  The potato is very forgiving.  Garden as desired.

We are big fans of “How to grow more vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine“.  It is a book on biointensive gardening that we have had a lot of success with and was a gift from my sister years ago.  I have never grown potatoes using their method so I’m kind of taking a chance.

The basic idea is, you plant to the minimum spacing in hexagons making a pattern that shades out the weeds.  I have an easier time visualizing equilateral triangles but you get the idea.

Here is how it looks as we were planting using a 9″ spacing.  I have used various triangle templates when making holes to plant our garden but when making rows for my potatoes, good enough seemed good enough.  The rows aren’t as precise as they could be but the green stuff will grow anyway.

We have always planted straight rows of potatoes and hilled the rows.  This time we’ll just shovel on manure or pile on straw across the entire 4′ wide row, being careful not to knock down the tops.  I hope this works.

As you can see, we aren’t digging the potatoes in.  We are placing them on top of worked ground.  Then we cover them with a few inches of composted horse manure.  Most people with horses have horse manure to spare.

Here is the finished row.  We got tired of constantly shoveling manure so we broke up the monotony by shoveling sawdust for our path.  The sawdust makes a good weed barrier and rots quickly.

 As the potatoes come up we will continue to maintain the bed.  Look for updates as they grow.

 Sister added straw to the top of the row but I’m chosing not to.  The dark surface of the horse manure should warm the potatoes in case it chills.  I may regret the decision.  Garden as you go, take notes, do better next time.

Planting Blueberries

For years we have purchased blueberries from some friends, Mark and Kelly Smith.  This year we thought we should put in a row of our own and see how it goes.  With luck and in time we may be blueberry independent.  We had 2 inches of rain the night before so working on mulch was going to be the only work I could accomplish in the morning.

Now, I know blueberries in central Illinois may not qualify as sustainable as our soil is anything but acidic.  They are something of a guilty pleasure.  I’ll have to work to keep the acidity up.  But we like them, they will provide a little color in the fall, and a windbreak for our garden.  Also, the line we are planting is at the very edge of the parking lot/driveway and will give us a clear border.

I began by laying out some lines that were square with the buildings.  Please note the recycled bailer twine.  I also had a 6″ deep line of aged wood chips and sawdust in place for the last week or so in preparation for planting.

Then I began digging.  I knew my grandpa collected rocks but I had no idea.  I plan to put up a post in the near future about making sure your short-term goals (preventing your tractor from getting stuck) won’t be in the way of future generations…considering the consequences of your vision.

The goal is to dig a hole 1 foot deep and 2.5 feet in diameter.  I stopped mining rock before I got to my goal on the last hole..

Because I took so much rock out I had very little soil to put back into the hole.  I put in a mix of several things to give my plants a good start.  First I put in a few shovels full of unsifted compost.

Then I added in about half a bag of peat to bring up the acidity.  Now, if given the choice between peat and coco coir I would choose the coco coir but this is a special situation.  I bought a greenhouse from a nursery that was going out of business.  He also had a pallet of peat.  Rather than send the peat to the landfill I brought it home.  This isn’t a choice I make every day but I think, in this scenario, you understand.

Next I add a few shovels of rabbit manure mixed with sawdust.  I realize not everybody has rabbit manure but you have to understand, I don’t have soil in this hole.  I’m using the rabbit manure to replace the missing soil mass.  Bear with me here.  I’m not presenting an ultimate solution, I’m just trying to make lemonade.

Then I mix the components and add some water.

Now I replace my string, measure my space between plants (with a 4′ tool handle) and place my plant in the hole.

I’m still short on soil so I continue surrounding the plant with rabbit manure and top it all off with a bit of horse manure.  Yeah, I know…not everybody has horse manure laying around either.  I’m trying to bring up the acidity after mining out a bushel basket of limestone.

Finally, I cover the row with a fresh 4″ of composted sawdust.  As that sawdust breaks down it will provide a weed barrier and raise the acidity of my soil.  Also it will sponge up moisture and provide soil structure as blueberries want to be moist, not wet.

I have done a lot of work over a couple of hours to plant a measly six plants.  As they grow they’ll tell me what they need.  I may have to make some changes or at least a few tweaks before they really take off.  I don’t know.  It is the unknown unknowns (Thanks Talib) that make gardening exciting.

Special thanks to our friends Nathan and Aimee for lending a hand with the mulch.   They thought they were just coming for lunch

Composting Winter Bedding

Our primary compost pile is a little long in the tooth and totally stuffed.  I had to build a new pile to handle the winter bedding for goats and chickens.  I began with a 5 foot ring of fencing, 4 feet tall.  I piled used bedding into it but any carbon will do: straw, leaves, etc.

I left the center open to give me a pocket for smelly organic wastes.  In this case, four 5-gallon buckets of kitchen scrap.  This can be anything that will rot from watermelon rinds to coffee grounds and filters to paper plates.

Finally, I added a good layer of carbon to the top to keep the odors in and the flies down.  Remember, if you can smell it you need to add carbon!  People often add a layer of wire mesh to the top to keep animals from digging into it.  I’m not too concerned with this pile but when I add chicken offal I will protect it from our wildlife.

So there you have my 5′ diameter, 4′ tall overflow compost pile.  I should note that while it is dry I leave the top dished out to capture as much rainfall as possible into the dry pile.  Once it gets nicely soaked I’ll probably change that.  If this pile still exists in July I expect it will steam even on the hottest days but it should be fertilizer by then.