Manure to Mulch

Many might bulk at the manure pile in their lives, but at Leafhopper Farm, it’s black gold with a few helping “hands”. Our deep bedding method supports manure breakdown with healthy bacteria. To maintain this decomposition, there has to be good air flow in the barn and turning of the bedding. Our chickens are great at turning, which can only be done in relatively dry bedding, so our sheep have to be out on the fields before the chickens can get at it. Once they move in, the compost gets an initial flip, then the fork takes a turn. At this stage, the manure is now broken down with straw and wood shavings to a fluffy mulch. We’ll get a lot of good soil for the gardens, and other planting areas on the landscape. Getting the animal to bedding ratio down is key to a successful deep bedding operation. In our barn, we’ve found that eight ewes is a great overwintering number to allow space and breathability to the straw that’s laid down. When we overwintered 12 ewes, our bedding input was too high, and we struggled to prevent anaerobic breakdown- which creates unhealthy off-gassing of ammonia in the barn. The sheep need dry, clean bedding which is demonstrated in the picture below. There is at least 4 inches of clean, dry straw on the ground for the ladies, allowing hooves to stay dry and clean, preventing hoof rot, encouraging aerobic decomposition with good airflow through the fluffy straw, and providing additional warmth from heat released during proper bacterial decomposition. On top of all that, we get healthy soil full of beneficial bacteria.

Some of our manure mulch is being staged for new native plant beds of shrubs. These now two foot high piles of seeming chaos are actually full of good living things like worms, fungi, and carbon breakdown. The straw, cardboard, and woody branches fold in to add additional carbon to the maturing soil. This spring we’ll spread an initial cover crop into these planting mounds and by fall of 2023, we’ll set root stock of hedge species like hawthorn and bitter cherry. Fruits from these two species will feed our chickens, and wildlife. We’ll coppice the shrubs for more carbon to compost back into the soil or to burn as kindling. There is endless possibility in utilizing manure as compost, folding in the physical work and cooperation with other systems like the chickens and sheep, mimic the restorative cycles of a balanced ecosystem. Elk, deer, grouse, and geese would have all been present in vast numbers playing the same roles. Seasonal migratory patterns would move the animals on, preventing overgrazing and the need for barns.

In winter, when things are wet, the sheep come in to prevent erosion on the landscape. From November to April, the land rests and recovers while the sheep laze in a warm, dry shelter with endless food. On sunny days when they get a little frolic in the field, it’s hard to coax them out of the barn, which speaks to the inside comfort. Manure build up is a consequence of having any animal shelter. It should always be a top priority in any animal system design. Too many times I’ve seen poorly implemented animal systems and the manure is usually a root cause of livestock system failures. Industrial farming is infamous for this. Though capturing and efficient production language is used often, the scale is truly mind boggling, and its long term impact, especially with the effects of climate change. The dairy industry alone has some staggering statistics on environmental impacts. Moving away from large scale would mean shrinking many other scales, including that of humanity.

Scale can flex, has to flex, to survive. In this holistic system, manure cannot outpace decomposition and redistribution within the physical abilities of a single person. In this climate, on less than 5 acres of pasture, 8 breeding sheep are a good balance. We’ve spent 10 years working out ungulate herds in restoration rotation- meaning the land improves with animal impact, becoming more diverse and resilient to climate change. Sheep do work best, though goats are helpful in initial clearing, but will brows lower skirt of trees and debark fruit trees over time. You can tell if a pasture is overgrazed by the health of trees within the pasture, if any still survive. Over time, debarking will girdle and kill trees, leaving a pasture barren of natural shade and shelter. This opens the door to erosion, and on hills like ours here at EEC, the loss of topsoil could be monumental.

The manure and straw has become such an integral part of retaining fertility in the soil while producing topsoil foundation for future forest. Here in Western Washington, where there are intact second growth and old growth forests, the ground is a thick tangle of roots, fallen branches, and nurse logs supporting new baby trees under a protective canopy. The ground is well littered with fertility, building topsoil naturally from intact biomass that has remained in place without erosion damage. For clearcut land without the rich biomass of a forest, the fertility remains bleak, and in active agricultural fields, heavy reliance on costly chemical inputs to revive dead soil enough for crops. Those crops are mono-cultures, destine to be shipped away, removing any fertility that was present, much like the removal of the trees in a forest. The topsoil here at EEC is very thin in some places, so thin a tree trying to root in would find it impossible to break through hard pan after only a few inches of root anchoring, preventing stability for long term old growth development. This is why the manure input is so crucial to restoration of forest. Without the buildup of topsoil, the forest will take many generations of trees growing and falling over each other to repair the ground and replace the thick mat of fertility for large, old growth to return.

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