Courtesy of Iowa State University Extension & Outreach
There are many benefits to living on a rural acreage or small farm. The opportunity to raise livestock is one of those advantages. Many times we see these landowners have horses, a small chicken flock, a few goats or maybe even a few beef or swine.
One of the challenges to this practice is what to do with the accumulated manure produced by the animals. If the animals are raised in a pasture-based or grazing system then natural distribution of the manure nutrient takes place. Otherwise, manure accumulated in stalls, coops or pens needs to be removed and appropriately handled at some point in time.
To give an example, an average sized (4 pound) laying hen will excrete about 0.26 pounds of manure per day (MWPS). If you have 50 laying hens you will accumulate over 4,700 pounds or 2.37 tons of chicken manure annually if the chickens spend all their time in the coop. As another example, a horse (1,100 pounds) will excrete about 50 pounds of manure per day, or 9 tons of manure per year. If the horse is housed in a stable where bedding is used, then you will also have to account for the soiled bedding in your calculations of material that need to be handled. As you can see, even with just a few animals, manure can quickly accumulate.
The two biggest challenges in manure management on small farms are 1) ease of handling of manure and access to storage and 2) appropriate use, application or disposal of the manure. The easier it is to handle the manure and clean the pens and coops, the more frequently it will get done and prevent accumulation of manure from getting out of hand. It is important when deciding to have animals on your acreage or small farm that you have access to equipment that fits your size of operation and also to have a way to deal with accumulated manure.
Based on the number of animals you have, access to a pitchfork and wheelbarrow may suffice, if you have a larger number of animals it may be wise to consider a small garden tractor with a loader/bucket for mechanical cleaning of pens and stalls. Areas that accumulate manure and bedding should be cleaned frequently to provide animal comfort, and to prevent too much manure from accumulating as that makes it a more difficult job to remove the manure.
Once manure is removed from the animal production area you have two choices, you can store the manure or you can land-apply the manure. Our goals should be to return the manure nutrient source to cropland, thereby completing the nutrient cycle of crops feeding our animals and animals fertilizing our crops. So when the need to store manure exists please keep these principles in mind, store manure until application is suitable for crop production; use storage as a way to better match your time resources and labor supply; store manure in a manner to protect nearby water sources; manage storage to prevent flies, odors and vermin; locate storage near manure sources; and size storage for easy access with manure handling equipment.
Much like large livestock farms, land-application of manure should be the primary goal to return nutrients to the cropping systems. Since this is not always possible on a small farm or acreage you should give due consideration to the distribution, use or disposal of the manure prior to bringing animals onto the small farm. As mentioned previously, our primary goal is to use the manure nutrients in the cropping cycle. This may mean your home garden or pasture acres or it may mean working with neighboring crop farmers. Regardless of where the manure is land-applied, you should have your manure analyzed for nutrient content and use soil tests to determine the application rate based on the crops you plan to grow. When considering using fresh manure in the home garden, you should apply and incorporate the manure at least 3 months before the crop will be harvested, 4 months if growing root crops or leafy material the comes in contact with the soil. The University of Minnesota has an extension publication that serves as a great reference for using manure and compost in home gardens, please see Using manure and compost as nutrient resources for fruit and vegetable crops.
If it is not possible to use the manure in your home garden or elsewhere on your acreage you can consider these options:
- Work with neighboring crop farmer to distribute on local fields,
- Work with neighbors for use on their gardens, or
- Inquire at local waste transfer station or trash service as to the availability of waste disposal.
Finally, the last consideration when handling, storing or land-applying manure on a small farm or acreage is to make sure the manure does not adversely impact the environment. Managing runoff from manure animal production systems on small farms is just as important as on large livestock farms. Be cognizant of local water sources and leachate coming off your manure storage or animal production systems, land-apply manure when weather and soil conditions are appropriate and do not increase the risk of runoff. Be aware of local regulations that apply to all manure sources.