by Jessica Bern

How does one go about discussing manure? When you’re farming, it’s an absolute necessity to learn how to use and manage it to your advantage.

Jacki Martinez-Perkins, MOFGA’s dairy and livestock specialist, begins with the differences between types of manure. For example, manure from carnivores and omnivores can be quite odorous. The benefit of this is that studies have shown it helps attract dung beetles. In contrast, herbivore manure doesn’t have a very strong odor since their diets are strictly plant-based. According to Perkins, herbivore manure doesn’t compost as quickly as that from omnivores, “so having some different species on hand like chickens or turkeys, something with a high nitrogen and ammonia content in their manure, will help that compost process to heat and happen quickly enough to be able to use it without having to stockpile too much.”

Alternatively, Perkins suggested, if you’re going to store your manure on concrete, make sure it is sloped at the right angle to avoid any leaching coming off and impacting the surrounding area.

Inside manure you’ll find fly larvae, internal parasites and some species of dung beetle which, Perkins pointed out, come in three different forms. “There are dwellers, which live inside the pile of manure where they lay their eggs; tunnelers, which come up from the ground in tunnels, much like a mole, and then pull manure down into the holes and lay their eggs inside those tunnels; and finally, there are the rollers, which are not often seen,” she said.

One way to know if your patties contain numerous dung beetles is to look at how many drill holes you have in your manure. The more you have, the greater the activity.

She suggested collecting a fresh fecal sample from your livestock, mixing it up in some dextrose and then you can count parasite eggs under a microscope.

At the end of the day, Perkins wants you to remember your manure management. “You want as little biting flies as possible, you don’t want parasites, but you do want fertility. Also, constantly consider your soil composition.” Some questions she said you can ask yourself are “Do you have light, well-drained soil? Low organic matter? Is it very wet?”

Perkins also spoke on the topic of timelines for the recovery of pastures.

“You generally don’t want to graze your pastures for more than three days,” she said, adding, “If you do, the grasses will send up new growth and animals, being super picky, will go back and eat that regrowth and stress the plant out. This will affect its ability to overwinter. The vitality of those grasses will also diminish over time, so you want the animals on and off as quickly as possible. Often the animals go to ‘regraze’ because very short pieces of new growth have a high sugar content, so they’re very palatable.”

When it comes to flies, Perkins suggested dragging your pasture between five and seven days. This way you can target biting flies because you’re now disturbing the larvae. She pointed out, “Although the parasite cycle is roughly 21 days, if you’re going through and regularly flattening your piles, it’s doing a few things – it’s mitigating your fly issue, it’s exposing the manure to light which kills the parasites and if it’s spread evenly throughout the pasture, you won’t end up with a pile that an animal is avoiding.”

Animals prefer not to eat where they have defecated. However, after flattening and evenly spreading the manure, it allows you to evenly spread the nutrients while allowing grass to grow. It also provides the animals “an opportunity to eat more grass in an even manner without getting too close to anything that they’ve defecated on,” Perkins said.

When it comes to recovery time for your grass, the amount of time depends on several factors. You must take into account the season and/or conditions such as soil fertility, organic matter, the amount of moisture you’ve been getting and/or sunlight. “In organic production, we look to rotationally graze. As a best practice, you take a parcel of land, split it into sections and then rotate where they start in one spot and then they don’t come back around to it for 30 to 45 days,” Perkins said.

She noted the best way to understand what is inside manure is to imagine a 3-D pile. On the top you’ll find a crust, “where flies lay their eggs. The larvae will then hatch out, eat and eventually grow and fly away.” Underneath the crust are dung beetles. The bottom layer, which has the most moisture, is where you’ll find the parasites. Perkins prefers to wait a few days before breaking up the dump piles, allowing time to attract an even greater amount of dung beetles.

Every species has different grazing patterns and natural behaviors. Perkins noted, “If you can understand the physiology and the behaviors of whatever livestock you’re keeping, you have a better chance of keeping healthier pastures and managing them the way that you need to. Knowing your land, observing what you’ve got going and making decisions on what you want to raise is super helpful.”

Companion grazing was another topic Perkins touched on. An example she presented: “I have a wet spot on my land and the chickens now get to go on the wet spot for two reasons; one, they’re not going to impact pasture that the horses can eat, and two, they’re not as heavy as the horses. They are nice and light and can go eat bugs in the wet spot and they won’t compact that ground adversely. The weight of the horses would compact all that mud and make it a dry, stinky hole, which wouldn’t be good for the environment.”

“This is why I encourage companion grazing,” Perkins said. “What sheep won’t eat, a cow will eat. What a goat will eat is not necessarily what a horse will eat. I have seen goats and sheep turn up their noses at what looks like perfectly good forage, then a cow will move through, see the food and act like it’s her favorite thing in the world. Also, a lot of times, it will depend on the season.” Assessing your plants while assessing what your animals are eating, and what they are leaving behind, is a great way to go.

And if all else fails, Perkins noted, don’t be afraid to change your plan.