Organic straw is a major input here at EEC Forest Stewardship. Plant stalks are a great carbon source for soil restoration, many people mulch with it in gardens or on spread it as a cover on recent soil disturbance sites (usually related to construction). But amending human and animal manure compost is its most valuable use at EEC. For the “nigh soil” compost system, the straw provides an amendment of carbon to neutralize the nitrogen high solid waste through breakdown with sawdust in a bin. That wonderful compost is then spread in the hedges along the edge of the property where no edible food touches the ground (orchard and shrubs). This is important to note- human waste can be some of the most toxic, due mostly to prescription drugs and poor diet (lots of preservatives). Heavy metals often accumulate in human waste, and so, the night soil is given a long time (2-3 years) to breakdown before it goes into the hedge.
The sheep get to enjoy straw as bedding, where it mixes passively with sheep poop and pee, creating a rich mesh of compost to be turned into healthy topsoil for native replanting. But when I started putting the straw into the barn stall for the sheep, they went to eating it, rather than sleeping on it, and this was distressing because then they were laying in their muck. I tried putting the straw down while they were enjoying their alfalfa, but they’d still take to it when done with the prime feed, reducing the bedding to less than adequate cover- especially in a deep litter system. I was at a loss, and tried many solutions from stomping all over the fresh straw to moving the girls in circles around the pen until they had stomped all over the straw with mucky feet- and they still nibbled here and there. Then one day, I had put the sheep out and spread the straw in the empty barn. When I brought the sheep in at the end of the day, the straw had been mixed up and moved around evenly across the floor with some old straw enough to keep the sheep from considering it palatable. At first, I was upset with the culprits- yes, my chickens, but then I saw that the bedding was left to do its work, and had been fluffed up, making it extra soft for the sheep to lay in, which they did.
Instead of fighting the bedding, the sheep, and the chickens to get my straw in just right, I let the animals do their natural thing, and find the solution is the problem- my chickens can glean the straw and fluff the bedding before the sheep come in to rest in the afternoon. The bedding does not look pristine, but it’s clean, and the sheep enjoy a good rest while providing great compost for the landscape. Eventually, the forest we’re restoring will have enough biomass to fully root into the ground as they grow- hopefully into old growth giants in generations to come.