Rex’s Tips: Using animal manure in the garden

Animal manure is the foundation of all fertilizer. It is either applied directly to fields and gardens or it is processed to make bagged manure, or other forms of commercial fertilizer around the world. Animal manure is excellent fertilizer and an excellent source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients; but it has its drawbacks, its deficiencies and its costs too.

Steer manure

Steer manure is by far the most abundant animal manure and the most complete; it contains generous amounts of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, it also contains many of the trace minerals that aid plant growth. Fresh steer manure contains about 3 to 4 percent nitrogen by volume. The older manure is, the less nitrogen it contains. Part of the nitrogen in steer manure is ammonia, which is a gas, and dissipates into the air quite rapidly; it should be tilled in immediately.

But how do you use the stuff, and how do you apply it? One reason commercial fertilizer is so popular is it is in a concentrated form, comes in a nice clean bag and is easy to apply. Steer manure? Not so much. Steer manure is available from dairies, cattle farms and stockyards, and in bags at your local nursery. Some of these might deliver the product to you, but it’s more likely you will have to go get your own. This is a major inconvenience, but it might also be free which makes it a major advantage.

As a rule of thumb, if you decide to apply steer manure to your garden, you would apply about three to four inches of manure on the ground and then till it in as deep as you can. This may seem like a lot of manure, but considering the distribution you’re not getting a huge amount of nitrogen out of it. Only about half of the nitrogen will be released the first year, the rest the following year. By comparison, a few pounds of 34-0-0 commercial fertilizer equates to all this steer manure — and it is available as needed. On the other hand, you will not get organic matter from commercial fertilizer.

Keep in mind that steer manure also contains quite a lot of weed seed that will sprout. Some commercially bagged steer manure is “cleaned” and is free of weeds, but this bagged manure ends up being quite expensive – so that’s your trade-off.

Horse manure

Horse manure has about 1 percent nitrogen by comparison, but it has more “undigested” feed in it. If sawdust is included, much of the nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down this material. Horses don’t digest feed as well as cows do, so much of the hay is just pushed right on through and ends up in manure. If you use horse manure, it’s generally necessary to supplement with a commercial nitrogen fertilizer.

Corn and cantaloupes thriving in manure in Rex's Garden, Toquerville, Utah | Photo by Rex Jensen, St. George News

Horse manure also contains a fair amount of weed seed, and horse manure is almost always free. Those with horses are delighted to get rid of the stuff but you’ll probably have to go get it yourself. I always make friends with a couple of neighbors who stable horses; when I ask if I may take their manure, I’ve never been refused yet.

Turkey manure and chicken manure

Turkey manure has a nitrogen content of about 9 percent which is triple that of steer manure, so it is “hot” stuff and you must be careful in applying it or you will “burn” your young, tender plants. The Moroni, Utah turkey growers, sell a “turkey mulch” that mixes turkey manure with sawdust or other wood products. Because some of the nitrogen is tied up in breaking down the sawdust, turkey mulch makes a great fertilizer and mulch for the garden. It is expensive and must be trucked in.

However, turkey mulch has very little phosphate, potash or the trace minerals. So what you’re getting is nitrogen and excellent mulch with very little weed seed in it, which is a plus.

All that is true about turkey manure is true with chicken manure also.

Pig manure

Pig manure has about double the nitrogen of steer manure, but because it contains different bacteria than other animal manure it becomes a very slow-release nitrogen. It generally takes two to three years before your soil and plants get all the nitrogen from it, so it is a poor fertilizer for nitrogen. It also contains less organic matter than steer or horse manure.

Cost considerations

Fertilizer doesn’t need to be expensive, but it can be. Commercial fertilizer is not cheap but it’s very convenient and easy to apply. Turkey manure is an excellent fertilizer and compost but is also expensive. If you’re resourceful you can get all the steer manure and/or horse manure you want for free provided you’re willing to invest the labor.

If you choose to buy all the expensive gardening materials, you might well have $14 tomatoes. By being resourceful, you can produce the best tasting and largest tomatoes around — at a fraction of what you will pay in the store.

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Copyright 2012 St. George News.

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