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Soil Care Basics: Increasing Organic Matter and Mineral Availability

Table of Contents

IntroductionManuresCompostsFertility PatchesCover Crops


Manures of all domestic livestock—your own or a neighbor’s—can be valuable additions to soil. Their nutrients are readily available to soil organisms and plants. The easy-to-decompose organic matter in manures makes a greater contribution to soil aggregation by soil organisms than composts, which have already largely decomposed. The manures of ruminants contain more fibre, which breaks down more slowly and is thus available as a food source for longer periods, and make a greater eventual contribution to soil humus.

Manure application must be done with care. To guard against contamination by possible pathogens in manure (far less likely in manures from homesteads and small farms than those from high-confinement livestock operations), it is best to allow a three-month interval between application and harvest of root crops or leafy crops like lettuce and spinach. (Tall crops like corn and trellised tomatoes should have no contamination problem.) Because nutrients from manures are so readily available in a big surge, they are more subject to leaching from the soil, where they are needed, into groundwater and streams, where they most definitely are not. If manures are overused, especially as the sole source of nitrogen, they tend to over-accumulate certain nutrients, especially phosphorus. Perhaps it is best to restrict fresh manures to heavy feeding, fast growing crops like corn, and process additional manure by composting.

When thinking of manures, it is worth thinking a bit about our own. Flushing “humanure” away (ultimately) to the sea is highly problematic for water systems, and represents a net loss of potential fertility from agricultural soils. On the other hand, no manure requires more cautious management for safety than humanure. I recommend Joe Jenkins’ The Humanure Handbook, the “bible” on this subject. Don’t be hesitant about experimenting: A small proof-of-concept humanure composting operation consisting of two 5-gallon buckets and a compost bin can be very low-profile indeed. If you are nervous about using humanure compost on food crops (Jenkins has used his right in the vegetable garden for more than 15 years with no ill effects), you can use it to feed trees, shrubs, and “fertility patches” (more of which below).