What a load of crap

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The miracle of composting is that it turns garbage and poop into fertilizer, but there’s just no getting around the fact that, before it’s fertilizer, it’s garbage and poop. Forget that at your peril.

Yesterday, Kevin and I forgot it.

Because we’re thisclose to getting pigs this spring, we went to visit a local pig farmer, Bob from Ten of Us Farm. Bob has piglets that are very small, piglets that are medium-size, just-weaned piglets, and piglets due this week. He’s been breeding pigs for some thirty-five years on his small farm, and he gave us a tour of his place.

I was doing my best farmwife imitation, with my overalls and my muck boots, but when we went in the barn to see the sows with their litters, I gave myself away as a pathetic city slicker.

“Piggies! They’re so cute!”

Oops.  I tried to recover by turning to Bob and saying, “I guess you get over the cuteness factor, eh?”

He paused for a second. “Nope.”

What we noticed most about Bob’s pigs is that they’re very, very clean. It’s weird how clean they are, since a big part of the outdoor enclosure they were walking around in was very mucky, and I’ve been given to understand that pigs love muck. But upland from the muck was sawdust, and next to the sawdust was a big field of grass dotted with pig shelters. And all the pigs were clean. It’s as though Bob had just gotten them, fresh from central casting.

Pigs weren’t the only animals in evidence. There were also sheep, goats, guinea hens, and one lone peacock, who did us the honor of opening his tail for us. Wandering around the yard was a flock of chickens that seemed to consist mostly of roosters. (“People bring ‘em here, and I take ‘em in,” Bob said.) Several of the roosters approached us with menace in their eyes, crowing like they owned the place. Among them was one tiny bantam with a comically high voice and a villainous swagger who puffed his wings out like a comic-book tough guy. Although I was warned not to turn my back on him, I couldn’t take a two-pound bird seriously and I walked away to go visit the sheep. The bantam flew at my shins, kung-fu style, spurs out, with a viciousness that surprised me. He was way too small to do any damage, but I will be more careful around roosters from now on.

Although the piglets were pretty irresistible, we weren’t ready to go home with them yet. Since we want to slaughter in the fall, we need to wait until at least next month to bring them home – they’ll probably take five or six months to reach market weight. But farmers who sell pigs also sell pig manure, and since we’re expanding our garden, we thought we’d bring home a trailer load.

Bob had a huge pile of manure down behind the barn. By “huge” I mean a hundred feet long and fifteen feet high. Mount Pig Poop.

It had been sitting there for quite some time, and looked to be well on its way to being fertilizer. We lined the landscape trailer with a tarp, and Bob pulled up in his Bobcat with its bucket attached. Five or six scoops later, we had almost two yards of it. As he loaded it, we could certainly smell it, but it wasn’t overwhelming.

The overwhelming part didn’t happen until we got it home, and started shoveling it off the trailer on to the top tier of our garden, where we figured we’d keep it until we were ready to put a layer in the bottom of our raised beds and the rest out back somewhere to continue to break down.

Sorry, no piglet pictures yet

The more we shoveled, the more obvious it became that it still had a lot of breaking down to do. By the time we got half of it off, we should have realized it, changed the plan, and dumped it as far away from the house as possible – somewhere it could sit for a good year. But we weren’t thinking very clearly. Maybe the fumes got to us. And we now have two yards of hog manure decomposing about fifty feet from our front door.

There goes the neighborhood.

“This was a big mistake,” I said to Kevin as I shoved all our clothes into the washer and set the dial to “Manure Cycle.”

“Nah,” he said. “It was only a small miscalculation.”

Hah! Small miscalculations don’t affect your property value. I can only hope we can move the pile far enough away from our house that we don’t have to live with the smell morning, noon, and night until the composting process can work its magic.

And it will. The giant, smelly heap will at some point be crumbly, nutrition-rich fertilizer. Right now, though, it is pig shit.

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Comments

  1. Dare I ask: how close (and tolerant) is your nearest neighbor?

  2. Three words for Kevin: Hydraulic. Tipping. Trailer.

    Good find on the pig manure. With your sandy soil, a heavy manure like that is a great improver. I’m still on the fence about pigs (just because of time constraints) so I’m looking forward to watching the process unfold on your blog – you know, 1500 miles away, without them smell.

    Have you got a mobile slaughterman that will kill and butcher for you, or are you doing it all ‘in-house’?

  3. I had a very similar experience a few years ago with a load of cow manure (which is nowhere near as bad as pig – pig manure is the worst smelling by far!). It didn’t smell too bad until that evening when it occurred to me that I just dumped a load of sh !t in my back yard and it smelled terrible! However, within a couple days, the smell dissipated and it was just a big pile of compost at that time. Within the week, the smell should be much reduced.

  4. If the smell is really bothering you and/or you think it might upset your neighbors, get a dozen bales of straw. Break up ten bales (or whatever it takes) and cover the pile with ‘slices’ of straw. Spread the remaining bales over all so that it’s completely covered. The straw will compost with the manure and hopefully neutralize the odor. It might not even take so much straw; I can’t visualize how big your pile is. Straw is about $5.00 per bale here, if you get it from the feed store, so this isn’t a cost free solution but leaves might also work if you can get them to cover the pile deeply enough without sliding off.

  5. I love your subtle humor… and I’m envious that you have a yard to make your own Mount Pig Poop. Our yard is still covered by a good two feet of snow and our night and morning temps assure there will be no danger of sudden flooding. I keep reminding myself that that is a good thing. Then I read a post about foraging dandelion greens and roots. Dang. Next, I read about shoveling shit and I’m back to being grateful for what I have. 😉

  6. My husband would tell you one of the worst experiences he ever had was when he had to kill the pig. We stopped eating pork.
    I once had a rooster (named Sid Vicious) come at me like that with the claws out king fu style. Unfortunately for him I was carrying a box of floor tile at the time, which ended up on him. He ran off squawking and I think he ended up as dinner.
    Or Sid may have ended up in the group that was attacked by a small white dog (Fluffy) that maimed and half killed my flock of forty. We winged little Fluffy and then tracked him down by calling round the vet’s.
    Good thing I like tofu and shrimp.

  7. “Nah,” he said. “It was only a small miscalculation.”

    Kevin has to be one of the shit coolest guiys on earth.

  8. Kevin F. says:

    Jen,

    I do go green with envy when our friend Ed drops a cord of wood our way in his HTT.

    Perhaps I could figure out a way to convert mine…you know, on the cheap…I always wanted to learn to weld! I do remember reading on your site that you took welding lessons!

    That’s it then, I just need to get a welder, learn how to weld, buy all the hydraulics and do a conversion!

    Thanks Jen! Tamar will be so pleased to hear all of your ideas.

    I’m glad we had this talk.

    Tom,

    I figure I would like to put back a couple of beers with the likes of you as well.
    Thanks.
    K.

    • OMG FINALLY SOMETHING I CAN TEACH YOU!!!!!! Kevin… we have a welding date this summer. besides, is there anything more exciting than the idea of me wielding a gigantic arc of fire?

      what
      could
      go
      wrong?

      🙂

  9. Bob is a great guy. I have gotten a lamb, pig from him and tons of manure.

  10. Cut down a near dead old tree, chip it, and cover up all that pig shit. There aren’t many problems that can’t be solved by covering them with wood chips.

  11. Kingsley says:

    Get some black plastic sheet – the kind they sell at hardware stores to go under concrete slabs. It’s cheap.

    Put this over your near-composted poo, the plastic will block the smell, and the warmth of the sun will speed the composting process.

    You can also re-use it later for killing weeds by simply covering them up.

  12. Am I the only one who feels that if the world worked at it should, Tamar would not have said “This was a big mistake,” and instead would have said “Oh, poop!”?

  13. Piglets! How exciting! I can’t wait to read about Tamar and Kevin’s Pig Adventures. I’m foreseeing epic adventures ahead, indeed. I think the odor of your pig-poop windrow should dissipate after the crust layer is exposed to air for a few days and dries out. The bit that stays inside the crust usually contains enough moisture to be smelly. I hope it settles down soon.

    In the meantime, have you heard of Walter Jeffries over at Sugar Mountain (Pig) Farm in Vermont? Great blog…he’s whip-sharp, practical, analytical, and so very fun to read, even for folks like me who never plan to keep pigs. http://sugarmtnfarm.com/

    • My new piggies were sired by a sugar mtn farm boar! I feel so at home here. I’m thinking that fresh crap smells a small fraction worse than the chemical fumes generated from freshly made chemical fertilizer. At least that’s what I’m telling my family before the piglets arrive.

  14. I’m with Sasha (I seem to agree with Sasha a lot these days); straw is cheap and it adds a lot of carbon to your pile which will help speed up decomposition, in addition to adding a lot of organic material.

    The good news is that Spring is here, so things should heat up and work faster.

    All said though, I’m glad it’s your pile of poop…

  15. Thanks for all your commiseration! Because we have no near neighbors, this is our problem and our problem alone, and I believe we will solve it with a mix-and-cover strategy. Kevin read that raw pig poop should be composted with some browns and greens (we have plenty of leaves, and need only some grass clippings), and then just left alone. So we’ll do that, and then cover with wood chips, straw, or plastic, depending on what seems readily available at the time.

    We’ve already noticed that a couple days under a tarp has reduced the smell considerably, so I am cautiously optimistic that this won’t put a serious dent in our quality of life.

    • Accidental Mick says:

      Just a thought. If you need grass clippings, would that stuff you got from the beach as a mulch work instead.

      • Mick, I wondered the same thing myself. And I guess it boils down to a pretty fundamental question, that I suppose I should know the answer to, but don’t. All “browns” used to be “greens.” So what gets lost when something like leaves, or sea grass, or anything else, goes from being green to being brown? Nitrogen?

        Anyone know? Or maybe this is a job for Google.

  16. Jo Thomas says:

    My husband’s dad was a “pork producer,” as they now call pig farmers. Eric is as farm boy practical as they come, but still says baby pigs are the cutest thing he’s ever seen.

  17. The key is to mix carbon in with the manure. This creates balance and binds the nitrogen so it sticks around to become fertilizer for your plants. The pile needs to breath so don’t cover it with a tarp. Instead, after mixing in the woodchips, straw or even course hay put a one foot layer of carbon on top of the pile. Then just leave it.

    I do static composting of piles that are 40, 60, even a hundred feet long and about 15′ across at the bottom and 10′ tall when they start out. They compost down to about six feet in high, sometimes less. This makes wonderful soil amendment for our poor, rocky mountain soil. We now have acres of lush gardens from doing this over the years.

    You can compost meat too. We compost entire hogs using this method when they die on the farm. I’m talking up to 1,700 lbs. It works and is easier than the constant turning advocated by some for composting. It does take a little more time but time I’ve got.

    Another good thing to throw into the pile is brush. This creates hollow spaces for air flow in the pile. In the fall, add more hay on top to help insulate the pile so it continues to cook over the winter. Final tip – put a foot thick layer of carbon down before you build the pile.

    Happy composting,

    -Walter Jeffries
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    Pastured Pigs, Poultry, Sheep & Kids
    in the mountains of Vermont

    • Walter! Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been to your site and seen pictures of your pigs — if you were closer I’d be showing up at your doorstep in the hopes of a tour and a pig-raising tutorial.

      But I’ll definitely settle for a composting tutorial! Thanks for the explicit instructions. If you happen to come back and read this, could you help me a little with carbon sources? (Or, if anyone else who can elaborate happens to read this, I’d welcome the help.) Kevin read that we need to mix the manure with both browns and greens. We have lots of browns (leaves, primarily), but not much in the way of greens. Do we need both, and why?

      Thanks again for commenting. I’m always glad for expert assistance!

      • The idea behind “browns and greens” is to help people think about balancing the mix. For the organisms to break down the organic matter they need various foods. It isn’t super critical to get it exact unless you’re trying to do a lot of compost fast. Patience and plenty of carbon works as a general rule. If you are trying to compost something like an 800 lb pig then you want a particularly hot pile to sterilize things. Pigs are full of nitrogen so they need plenty of carbon to balance that. If the pile is too cold you need more green (nitrogen) to heat it up. If the pile smells ammonia like (shitty) then you need more browns (carbon) to absorb the out-gassing nitrogen. If the pile is too sulfur (anaerobic) then it needs more air. Follow your nose.

        Check out these pages:

        http://www.google.com/search?q=site:sugarmtnfarm.com+compost

        which have further links to some publications about composting. Biggest thing is remember to add carbon. That is what most people tend to not add enough of. It is only as complex as you want it to be.

        Cheers,

        -Walter

  18. Greg the Beeman says:

    I;m with Walter. The brown and green thing is just to get folks to remember that nitrogen sources (pig crap is moderate, chicken crp is red hot loaded, and horses/cows are just mild) need to be roughly balanced with carbon sources (like old hay, straw, sawdust or wood shavings, leaves, etc.). If you smell the crap, you are losing nitrogen, if the pile smells moldy or stale, you need more nitrogen. If it gags you to try and smell it, th e pile is probably anaerobic and needs to be busted up and rebuilt with more air flow. I have disovered that old corn stalks are wonderful for adding ventilation layers, and a piece of drain tile (or pipe with holes in it) right through the pile in the midlle really speeds up smaller piles. I make smaller piles by tying 3 shipping pallets together on edge (in a U-shape) and layering up materials between the two pallets on the sides. If i decide to turn it, I just use two more pallets to make a W shape and fork from one bin into the other. That works for small amounts and is pretty fast. For larger amoutns of materials, and if time is not short, nothing beats a pile with layers (6 inches of crap, 12 inches of straw) over a larger area for a longer time.

    Kevin was right. No big deal. Just a slight misunderstanding and a step on the learning curve. I call those good times. Looking back on them, they were good times. At the time they were happening, they might have seemed like some pretty crappy times. So, you’re both right.