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.