The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of
January 7, 2011



I spent the day digging in cow poo.

Well, to be more specific, I spent the day cleaning out one of our cow's deep-bedded stalls. It's an exercise I need to do on a regular basis anyway. Lately I'd been pretty busy and had let that task go in favor of other bigger fires. The result was our cow-vaulting attempt two days ago. Clear signal to me that I needed to attend to that task.

While mucking out her stall wasn't really what I wanted to be doing today, it was good exercise on several fronts. After all the excitement of Tuesday and the philosophical quandaries I got into yesterday (see my previous blogs for details), today it was nice to just go down to the barn, work hard for a few hours, and actually see some results. If you've ever done hard physical work, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, I heartily encourage you to get your hands dirty. There's something very therapeutic about hard work when it's chosen work and you get to keep the benefits of your efforts.

But what, pray tell, is so special about the smelly task of mucking out a stall? Compost, dear reader! Compost! What started out as poo will, if handled correctly, magically transform into that most delectable stuff, compost. The wonders of compost are many. We've only started to learn here to take advantage of them, and it is an education we have really rather enjoyed.

First, there's the sheer pleasure of knowing that your animals are clean and dry during the Pacific Northwest's notorious Mud Season. Our mud season lasts from roughly October through May, when the heavens unleash enough precipitation upon us that we have to find ways to channel that water in constructive ways. Livestock can turn bare outdoor yards into veritable mudpits even during the dry season. But when the heavens unleash downpour after downpour, that muddy yard becomes a cesspool. So good livestock management goes hand in hand with mud control. And mud control almost always involves making compost at some point.

Now, many folks have never studied mud up close. It is a universe unto itself. Our region's very own Alayne Blickle once defined mud as "M.U.D., which stands for Manure, Urine and Dirt". She has made it her life's mission to help livestock owners find ways to reduce the amount of mud they generate on their properties. The benefits for controlling mud are: easier chores, healthier animals, fewer flies, minimized runoff problems, and an all-round prettier, more valuable property. No one enjoys looking at mud, or living next to it, or living downstream from it. But there's ways to control mud. One very good way is to bed animals down with well-chosen bedding materials, collect the animals' manure before it's trodden into the dirt, and compost it under cover for use elsewhere on the property. Which is exactly what I was working on doing today. You can read about Alayne's work at Horses For Clean Water.

The second value in compost is the amazing nutrient transfer it provides. Natural landscapes almost always had a combination of plant and animal communities. The output from one became the input for another. Plants thrived on the manures of the animals that lived in the area, and the animals grazed, browsed or otherwise fed upon the nutrients in the plants. Many modern landscapes - whether they be urban, suburban or rural - no longer have those complete nutrient cycles intact. We apply fertilizer to our lawns because herbivores don't poo there anymore. Then we give our animals supplements because the plant materials they eat (or meat from herbivores who ate plant materials) are low in nutrients. Compost helps close the loop. Most of the nutrients in the raw manure are preserved, including that all-too-important nitrogen. And it is preserved in a way that won't so easily wash out of the soils during the first good rain.

Composting also reduces both weed seed and disease organism populations that are present in manure. Everyone's poo, including yours, dear reader, is a veritable zoo of microorganisms. Some of which are decidedly ill-tempered if they are allowed to proliferate. The high temperatures of properly-made compost kills those microorganisms, along with weed seeds that may have been present. The end result is a product chock full of goodness. It's easy to tell compost from raw manure. The manure makes you wrinkle your nose and think "ew!" The compost makes you want to dig your hands into it and plant something. Our very instincts tell us that compost is good stuff, worthy of effort in its creation, storage and use.

Additionally, compost is of course one of the starting materials for most forms of plant production on a farm. Soils that have been farmed continuously year after year will slowly but surely lose whatever nutrients they started with. Old broken down soils are often refered to as "tired", and will steadily lose their ability to grow plants. The plants that do grow will struggle with a variety of disease and pest problems, because they aren't healthy enough to defend against those threats. Science is finally starting to understand the merits of old farming traditions for applying compost to the fields, and encouraging a strong, diversified population of soil microorganisms. Soils are not meant to be sterile. They are meant to be bursting with life. Compost helps soils regain and keep that life. Healthy soils provide healthy plants, which in turn create healthy plants, animals and people.

One more benefit of compost is the amazing amount of energy it releases. The microorganisms in compost which aerobically digest the manure and turn it into compost release heat while they do their thing. That heat is what cooks out the weed seeds and disease organisms. That heat can also be tapped to provide hot water and/or warm air for a variety of purposes. The sheer mass of materials itself also provides a nice heat sink that can warm surrounding areas. I have read about folks who used compost piles to provide their domestic hot water and greenhouse heat. Those are both typically rather pricy bills to be paid. Yet the lowly compost pile can make those bills go away. The composting process is also a key ingredient in traditional hotbeds, where raw manure is put into a covered pit or trench and allowed to "cook". Put soil over the top of that compost pile, and plant into that soil, and your seedlings will have nice toasty warm little feet even while it's still January outside. In this era of electric heating cables and propane heaters, it's nice to know I can just harness the inherent energy of my existing compost piles to do all this heating for me. We've just started to experiment with some of those heating projects here. I'll write more about that aspect of things as we get more experience with it. But I'll be overjoyed to tell the propane company to come get their tank and stop billing me twice a year.

So compost is a many-splendored thing. Want better health care? Feed the soil. Want to feed the soil the very best? Feed it well-made compost. Want good compost? Treasure whatever poo you have access to. Treat it kindly, and handle it with respect. Want free heat? Harness your compost while it's cooking. Want financial independence? Treasure the materials we take for granted, and find ways to put 'em to work. Black gold, this stuff is, and it's the building blocks of darn near everything we hold truly dear in life. So in all sincerity I can say to you: "May the Poo be with You." Now, go forth and look upon poo, and compost, with new respect.