Making compost with cow manure

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Making compost with cow manure

Having spent many years involved in front-line agriculture and focussed mainly on handling cattle, I’m well placed to offer a few ideas about how to make the best use of cow manure. 

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that cow manure is extremely valuable to the farmer who farms the land where the cow manure has been generated. The manure is needed to go on the land to provide nutrients for growing crops. 

It wouldn’t be wise to allow too much of it to be taken off-farm. Cow manure is not waste, despite the fact that there may be mountains of it appearing near farm buildings. Any concept that a heap of cow manure is a ‘load of bull’ that has no value and needs to be got rid of, is false.

It therefore surprises me that any cow manure is made available to anyone to take away from the farm. In the time when I was involved in working with cattle and farming land, we were reluctant to release any manure at all. We needed all of it to go back to the land.

So, the point I’m making here is that if you have access to a supply of cow manure, you should consider yourself to be extremely lucky. This must surely be one of the biggest privileges that any gardener could have.

The best thing that you can do with cow manure is to turn it into compost. The good news is that it will turn into compost very easily. You don’t need to put much effort into making this happen. If there is anything out there that’s been specially designed by nature to easily turn into compost, it’s cow manure.

If you’ve been lucky enough to secure access to a supply of cow manure, you need to know what type of manure is available to you. It will depend on what you are offered at the farm but there are two main categories of cow manure.

There is what some of us call ‘strawy dung’ and there is slurry. The slurry is dung that has come straight from the cow. This will be a stodgy, runny also described as a sloppy material. It isn’t the easiest material to handle but if you can get it and handle it, you will find it to be very productive.

Looking at making compost from cow manure

The best type of cow manure will be ‘strawy dung’. This is a mixture of cow dung mixed with straw bedding. This type of material is formed when cattle are kept in sheds. 

They have a lot of straw to lie on to make them comfortable. Dung is dropped onto the straw. Then, more straw is spread over the top of whatever is there. This procedure is repeated over and over. After a while, the level will build up and we will have a solid mass of cow dung mixed with straw.

This is a perfect combination. We have the ‘greens’ in the form of cow dung and the ‘browns’ in the form of straw. This a much easier material to handle. It’s solid and consists of long fibres of straw bedding. It can be easily moved using a garden fork. 

It can be loaded into manageable plastic bags or into a small trailer. Unlike fresh slurry which needs to go into bucket-containers and then poured like the heavy thick liquid that it is.

Having acquired our bounty of ‘strawy dung’, we need to decide what to do with it. You may be tempted to apply it to the ground straight away. For example, you may want to  spread it on a vegetable patch and then dig it in.

This is an option but the nutrients are much more mobile when the material around plants have decomposed. Manure that’s had time to convert to compost, will be much more effective.

How long does it take for cow manure to compost?

Cow manure that’s got plenty of straw mixed in with it, will make really good compost. It could be said that, using this type of material, you can’t fail. It will rot down into compost if you just leave it in a heap and do nothing to it. This may take 1 to 2 years to turn into a good quality compost. Many will tell you that it’s worth the wait but more will tell you that you will want it sooner.

The time that it takes for cow manure to convert to compost will depend on a number of factors and how you want to go about it. Anyone who manages to secure a meaningful amount of cow manure, will probably find themselves with a decent sized heap. 

This isn’t making compost by adding little bits of vegetable peel, some egg shells and plate-scrapings to a compost bin and putting a lid on it. This, if your lucky, is going to be big stuff. You have to handle it as a separate enterprise away from your regular compost heap,pile or bin.

Cow manure that’s mixed with straw, will be compressed into lumps. This is because it will, most likely, have been built up in layers with cattle walking over it. 

It will be so compacted that some of it will be almost completely sealed from air. We need to open up the sealed lumps to allow air to get in. This will allow microbial life-forms to get to work and start breaking down the material. This is the point when the composting process begins. 

The digging-over method is going to be the best and fastest way of converting cow manure to compost. Digging it over involves using a strong garden fork to move the heap of cow manure from one position to another.  The question here is: how often do we need to dig it over? 

There are those who will tell you that you need to dig it over every 3 days. This isn’t necessary unless you want the exercise. There’s no doubt that cow manure will make compost more quickly if you keep digging and opening up the mass to let air in but you don’t need to go over the top.

Keep it simple and easy. If you are looking at a heap of freshly delivered cow manure in the Autumn, you will only need to dig it over 2 or 3 times through the winter months to have a usable compost by the next Spring-time.

The first time you dig over the heap, you may notice that steam appears to rise from the heap. This may show up the day after the heap is dumped in your garden. This will happen when settled cow manure is disturbed for the first time. 

The first air that gets into it will initiate the actions of microbial life-forms and they go for it so fast that heat is generated, enough to make steam clouds. This is nothing to be alarmed about. If you’ve never seen this happen before don’t panic, you don’t need to call the fire brigade.

About making compost from cow manure

Add hydrated white lime.

Doing this will speed up the process considerably. The procedure is very simple. Get hold of a bag of hydrated white lime and cover the whole heap before you dig it over for the first time. Use enough lime to make the heap appear white, you don’t need to apply a thick covering, just a dusting. 

If you find that there isn’t much left in the bag, then you may as well throw the rest over the heap. It will do more good there than being left in the bag. Hydrated lime tends to go hard in a bag unless fully sealed away from atmospheric moisture.

Any farmer will tell you that lime and dung is a good combination. The hydrated lime will reduce the acidity that will be generated as cow manure rots. Acid in compost tends to preserve when we want it to decompose. Adding white lime will keep it moving in the direction that we want. Digging the heap over after we’ve applied white lime, will ensure that it’s mixed in, allowing it to have a full effect.

Does making compost from cow manure smell?

There’s a side effect which you may or may not appreciate. There will almost certainly be a smell. This will be quite distinctive. There really is no other smell like it. You will notice it most of all when you start digging over the heap.

It will be associated with the steam that will appear as you dig. Be mindful that, if you live in a crowded area, your neighbours may not be so accommodating. Thankfully this will be a passing phase. A heap of cow manure isn’t capable of being a stink generator for ever. The smell will subside fairly soon after the first dig-over.

The other potential downside is flies. Dung attracts flies. You may be bothered by them when you dig the heap over for the first time. This is another good reason for having cow manure delivered in the Autumn. This is the time of year when flies are less likely to be around. Especially so, if you’re in an area where you get the occasional frosty weather.

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Compost from cow manure

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