Scott Huber uses a tractor to move animal manure into his compost area on Itty Bitty Farm. Credit: Courtesy of Scott Huber

As spring and warmer temperatures move northward over Maine, homesteaders are throwing open the doors of barns and coops to take advantage of the fresh air. But as pleasant as that is, they are also facing a somewhat less pleasant annual task: cleaning out a winter’s worth of droppings from livestock and poultry.

While the annual poop spring cleaning may not be a favorite chore, it is very necessary for the health and wellbeing of animals. That’s because animal and bird manure can contain bacteria, parasites or other disease-causing organisms.

Then there is the question of what to do with all that manure that piled up all winter. Left alone, it’s going to start to stink, so the piled up waste from farm animals has to be dealt with before it becomes a health hazard for livestock and humans.

One of the best ways to get rid of animal manure is using it as a natural plant fertilizer and soil amendment. You just need to be smart about it.

Adding manure to garden soil or on a field before planting provides nutrients needed by growing plants and helps improve the soil’s ability to hold water. But it’s important to know when your livestock poop is ready to be natural fertilizer, because fresh manure can contain human disease-causing bacteria that can contaminate your vegetables.

“A major issue with raising animals is their by-products [and] there is no way around it,” said Scott Huber of Itty Bitty Farm in Columbia Falls. “If they’re eating, they’re pooping.”

The silver lining to that, according to Huber, is all that poop can be turned into natural fertilizer when composted properly. On Itty Bitty Farm they raise chickens, quail, pigs and rabbits. They all poop.

All manure is not created equally and poop from different animals or birds contains different levels of nutrients. Knowing that helps so you can use it without damaging plants or soil.

That’s where composting comes in.

Chickens, for example, are among the best sources for natural fertilizer. Their manure contains high levels of nitrogen in addition to lesser amounts of phosphorus and potassium. Plants need nitrogen, but too much of it can harm or kill them.

“Chicken poop is considered ‘hot’ because of the high nitrogen content,” Huber said. “It needs time to break down and ‘cool’ before being added to your garden soil.”

Adding fresh chicken manure to young plants can actually burn leaves and stems.

Chicken manure cleaned out from a coop is often mixed with the straw or wood chips used as bedding. It can all be composted together in a bin or even in a black plastic construction debris bag. If you are putting it in an open bin, plan on adding water and stirring it every few weeks. It takes about six months for chicken manure to break down enough to mellow out the nitrogen content to safe levels.

With fresh cow manure the problem is not nitrogen, it’s the high ammonia levels that can damage your plants. To help compost pure cow manure, mix in straw, ash or lime, and let it age in a bile or bin for at least four months before using.

Pig manure is another good source of natural fertilizer but it must be completely composted due to many pigs carrying E.coli, Salmonella or parasitic worms in their manure.

The trick is composting pig manure at high temperatures, turning the pile frequently and adding in organic matter like dried grass, dead leaves, kitchen scraps or weeds. It should compost about a year before spreading it on your garden.

“I make a big compost pile that we add to over the course of about a year,” Huber said. “I use the tractor bucket to turn it over every week or two so that the fresh stuff gets mixed in with what is already cooking to help it break down quicker.”

Huber said temperatures in the center of his pile can reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit and will actually start smoking. The end product, he said, looks like bagged compost that can be purchased in a store.

“If you keep any kind of livestock or fowl you should be composting their manure,” Huber said. “You benefit from free fertilizer rich in nutrients with little more effort than you’re already putting into caring for your animals.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.