Using Animal Manure in the Vegetable Garden

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Composted manure

Back when people rode horses and families kept milk cows, animal manures were the main source of primary nutrients for garden plants. Times have changed, but many of us still use selected manures produced by vegetarian animals to enrich our soil or fire up our compost. Animal manures come with a heavy bacterial load and thus require special handling, and you must also pay attention to the purity of the source. It is better to be a manure snob than to curse your garden with herbicide residues, growth hormones, heavy metals and other undesirable substances that may be present in some manures. Animals grown using organic methods naturally produce better manure.

Animal Manure Handling Options

My small flock of laying hens produces a steady stream of poo, which I can add to my compost or dry for future use. The same safety guidelines for poultry manure apply to other garden-worthy manures, which may come from cows, goats, horses, rabbits, sheep or other grass eaters. Manures from carnivores or pigs should not be considered because they can host pathogens and parasites that can infect humans and can’t be composted away.

Weed seeds are ground up in the gizzards of free range poultry

Spreading or digging in raw manure is an option in the fall, because more than four months (120 days) will pass before the manured soil produces an edible crop. By then the manure will have decomposed and pathogenic Salmonella and E. coli bacteria in the manure will be vanquished by time, exposure and soil-dwelling microbes. In the US, National Organic Standards allow for a shorter, 90-day waiting period for tall crops with edible parts that do not come into contact with the soil, for example sweet corn or staked tomatoes.

But digging raw manure into soil comes with a risk. When I tried it with tomatoes, the tomatoes grew into huge plants that produced a delayed crop because of excessive nitrogen from the manure. One of the challenges of using animal manures directly in the garden is guessing at how much to use, which varies with the type of manure and the next crop to be planted. Root crops often react badly to fresh manure of any kind, evidenced by twisted carrots and scabby potatoes. Composting manure before you use it, or simply allowing it to rot, reduces health risks and benefits the garden, too.

Hot composting reduces bacteria and weed seeds often found in animal manure

Aging and Composting Manures

My neighbor buys a load of cow manure in the fall, and lets it sit through the winter before digging it into her garden in early spring. Simply aging a manure pile for three months can kill about 60 percent of the weed seeds present, and bacterial counts start to drop within days after the manure leaves the animal. Then, when the aged manure is mixed into the soil, soil microorganisms clear out residual bacteria in about a month.

Yet the safest approach is to compost manure until it heats up, either by itself or combined with other materials. Bacterial counts plummet at about 100°F (37°C), while temperatures above 122°F (50°C) will kill many weed seeds. Hot composting animal manures can solve two problems at once.

Some manures are weedier than others due to what the animals eat and the efficiency of their digestive systems. However, the soil probably holds far more weed seeds than any manure you might use, so the bigger issue is what types of seeds might be in the manure. This is best judged by looking at the fields where the animals graze. I would happily use manure produced by my friend’s miniature donkey, who grazes on clean pasture, but not cow manure from a farm where the noxious weed called velvetleaf is present. I have enough weeds in my garden without adding more.

Donkeys, goats and other grazing animals produce good manure for building soil

Best Animal Manures for Gardens

Should you ever be offered some bunny berries (rabbit manure), take them. Weed-free rabbit manure contains plant nutrients in low doses that won’t overwhelm plant roots. The same is true of the “beans” left in piles by alpacas or llamas, which rot into a material that resembles peat moss.

The manure from free-range chickens is nearly weed free, because the weed seeds chickens eat are broken down as they are ground with grit in the birds’ gizzards. This is one of the reasons why poultry manure can be made into a pelleted fertilizer, whether or not it has first been composted. The high temperatures needed to dry poultry pellets also eliminate dangerous bacteria, making poultry pellets safe to handle. Still, it is best to wear gloves.

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Show Comments


"Our dog eats practically only dried food that contains chicken and lamb products and has never had worms. Can I add his poops to our compost pile? My husband always insists that it must be thrown away."
Marsha on Saturday 22 September 2018
"Marsha, dog poop can contain human pathogens regardless of the animals' diets. You can dispose of it in a separate enclosed composter and use the material for ornamental trees and shrubs, but not for edibles. "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 3 November 2018
"i have access to a large heap of well rotted pig manure, can i use on my veg garden , "
tony westwood on Wednesday 12 June 2019
"I have been reading a lot about alpaca poop (beans). We have 3 alpacas and am interested in using their poop in my garden. I read mixed ideas about the use. Some experts say alpaca poop needs to be composted and heated to 140 degree before using in edible garden because of Salmonella and Listeria. Others say it is safe to use instantly into the garden...even edibles. I am confused. Also, the folks selling alpaca beans say it does not burn even though it does have a high nitrogen? See my confusion. Can you use alpaca beans on flowering veggies like tomatoes? Does the high nitrogen affect the flowering? And does it burn if you use with out composting? Any and all advice would be appreciated thank you!"
Carey on Saturday 15 June 2019
"I'Mm doing research for a school project and we're planting i n our newly built shade house, just wondering if you can help me out by telling me about planting tomatoes with cow manure VS Chicken Manure?"
MONIQUE BALGOBIN on Thursday 11 July 2019
"Monique, Chicken manure is higher in nitrogen, the growth nutrient, so it would lead to fast, lush production of leaves. Cow manure has a lower nutritional analysis, so the effects will be less dramatic but more sustained, and you will need more by volume compared to chicken manure. In both cases, the manure should be composted first. Good luck with your project."
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 11 July 2019
"What material do you use on your coop floor. we ve been using some wood chips to keep them warm in the winter ( as coop in old) so, i cant use this as manure"
tania on Wednesday 25 September 2019
"Hi Barbara! My friend just digs a hole and poops into it every time he wants to plant something. Some of his plants do well, but some newly planted fruit trees lose all their leaves overnight. What could be the problem?"
Egmond Kanakas on Thursday 17 October 2019
"I have been putting cow manure/straw/hay in my compost bins all winter. Back in January, I dumped a bunch on my garden to compost in place. Do I need to till it in or just leave it? Not much hay/straw visible. I guess, now, I might get hay/straw growing, but I am hoping my free range hens ate most of that. "
lark on Saturday 21 March 2020
"Lark, I often let my chickens spread compost, too. The only reason to cultivate is to distribute rich organic matter into the root zone."
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 21 March 2020
"1. I want an advice, usually planting Maize on large scale,what is the best Manure i can apply to increase yield per hectare? 2. Is it possible to add both organic manure and inorganic fertilizers like (DAP) at once during planting?"
Aloys from Rwanda-kigali on Saturday 18 April 2020
"Aloys, you can mix manure with inorganic fertilizers to get the growth needed in large scale maize. Prepare the soil with high-quality manure if it is available. Later on, use a high nitrogen fertilizer when the maize begins to form tassels. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 20 April 2020
"I have a herd of Icelandic sheep that graze our hayfield. I have a manure pile from cleaning out the barn last fall so it has sat all winter. Is it safe to mix in my garden bed for a memorial day planting? "
Abigail on Monday 20 April 2020
"Yes, Abigail, six months of weathering is plenty for your manure. Good luck!"
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 21 April 2020
"I am concerned about stray cats using my vegetable garden for their deposits. In addition, last year we lost nearly all the green beans and a few tomato plants when a careless employee from my lawn company sprayed weed killer on my vegetable garden. I am going to shutdown the garden this year. Would the garden be safe for planting next year, if I add good composted topsoil and manure this year and work to keep the stray cats out? "
Bob Horton on Thursday 30 March 2023
"Can I use sheep muck on my garden and veg plot."
Kate on Friday 21 July 2023

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