The Value of Manure: Then and Now

We spend a good part of the spring hauling manure, and our kids are quick to clarify that it is in fact “cow poop”, which is apparently a lot more fun to say for 2 and 4 year old boys. For my purposes here, though, I’m going to stick with “manure”. Manure is kind of a funny thing. It’s something that has to be carefully managed. It has to be stored properly to not run off into waterways, but also stored away from livestock for their health and safety. It has to be hauled on fields at the right time and in the right quantities to safely provide nutrients for crops, and it has to be worked into the ground to prevent excessive runoff, but when it’s well managed manure also has immense benefits to the soil and the crops planted in that soil, and it’s a very valuable resource.

This cost/benefit conndrum isn’t new. My great uncle Merle wrote, of manure management in the 1930s and 1940s*:

One big job that I disliked very much was hauling manure. Of course, we kept the cows in the hayshed and the lot around it all winter. We never had too many cows. I would guess 10 or 15 but by spring both sides of the hayshed were two feet or more deep with manure and quite a lot out in front also. The horse barn I cleaned out almost every Saturday, I think. There were 3 stalls in it with a little swinging window back of each. It was for ventilation and also to pitch the manure out. Of course by spring you had a big pile there behind the barn. The first I helped haul manure we had no manure spreader, so we pitched it all by hand onto the flat rack and then took it to the field with horses, of course, and then forked it off by hand and scattered it as we did. This was very hard work, but from Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor until well into 1945 and later you could buy no new cars, farm machinery, tires and many other things. Dad went to a sale south of Littleton on Feb. 25, 1943 and bought a manure spreader for $230 which was more than a new one would have cost if you could get one. It was a John Deere with 4 steel wheels, of course, horse-drawn. So we had a whole lot better way of hauling manure now, but we still had to pry it loose and load it with our pitch forks. We had to have fields dry enough to get out on, but we had to get all hauled and spread so we could plow it under before planting. We had, as I mentioned both sides of hayshed and then the pile at the horse’s barn and then the laying room and roosting room in the chicken house…I found in my diary, Jan. 12, 1946 “Hauled 7 loads of manure – used tractor.” I suppose this would have been the first time we pulled the spreader with the tractor.

Excerpt from Growing Up on the Farm in the 30s and 40s by Merle Caldwell*

Things haven’t changed as much as you might think in the past 80 years. Storage is more controlled: we now have concrete storage structures for manure from the milking herd, and those structures as well as the entire lot drain to a lagoon to prevent runoff contamination. The structures hold about a year’s worth of manure, so we have the flexibility to haul when conditions are right. The stored manure still has to be hauled on fields before corn planting, though, and it still has to be worked into the ground (though we almost never plow fields anymore). As with most things, the process has gotten a bit more efficient, with less manual labor, just as it did over the course of Merle’s childhood. We load our spreader with a skid loader, and both the spreader and the tractor we pull it with are larger than those available in the 1940s, but the other changes are fairly superficial. From the environmental side, our state regulations are not overly stringent since we are not a CAFO, but we do keep track of which days we haul where, and those records are reviewed by the state.

The value today is a bit different than 1940 also, at least in dollars, as with most things. We haul some manure on rented land farmed on shares, so this spring we had some samples tested to determine the monetary value relative to fertilizer costs for similar nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, mainly). The total fertilizer price equivalent was about $14/ton, and we haul approximately 14 tons/acre. With that kind of value, its easy to see why farmers have a vested interest in not letting those nutrients get lost in runoff from a purely financial standpoint. Manure also contains organic matter and other things to improve the soil for crop production that are harder to monetize, and that generally continue through multiple crops or growing seasons.

One other thing hasn’t changed, though – it’s still one of the most dreaded jobs on the farm.

* My great uncle Merle Caldwell wrote the book Growing Up on the Farm in the 30s and 40s for our family in 1997. I have had my grandparents’ copy for years and finished typing it into a digital format last fall. I plan to continue to share excerpts of it here with comparable or contrasting stories from our own farm almost a century later.

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