Most smallholders will likely have access to manure of some kind that can be used to help improve their soil quality when planting vegetables. There are a number of types, each with their own pros and cons.
Manure, like compost, improves soil quality and water holding capacity. It should also contain a number of bacteria and microorganisms that provide nutrients to the soil. However, not all dungs should be used in the same way.
Chicken droppings are very high in nitrogen and also contain amounts of potassium and phosphorus ~ making up the commonly known term, of NPK. The high levels of nutrients in chicken dung are the reason this is the best kind of manure to use.
However, high nitrogen can be dangerous to plants if the manure has not been properly composted. Raw chicken manure can burn your plants, sometimes even killing them.
Composting your chicken manure will produce the best results. This can be done in a bin or on a compost pile. Water the pile thoroughly and then turn it every few weeks to get air into the pile. Good composting should take about six to nine months.
Cattle dung is made up of digested grass and grain. It is high in organic materials and rich in nutrients. In addition to good levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, cow manure also contains ammonia which can be dangerous. For this reason, it is recommended to adequately compost your cow manure.
In addition to eliminating harmful ammonia gas, compost will also help break down seeds so your manure does not produce an unwelcome crop of grass in your vegetable garden.
To compost a heavy manure like cow manure, mix it with lighter substances like hay or straw, as well as your regular vegetable matter, garden waste etc. Cow manure needs a good amount of heat to compose, so for that reason you must make sure your pile is big enough to generate enough heat. Regularly turn your pile to aerate the compost.
Like with other manures, fresh horse dung should not be used directly on plants as it can burn them. Horse manure can contain weed seeds as well, so for these reasons composted manure will work best. The heat produced in the composting process can kill most of these seeds. Horse manure is very easily composted. It can be easily turned with a garden fork to aerate the process. Small amounts of organic material such as vegetable matter can be added as well. Typically, horse manure takes about two to three months to compost adequately, but it is best to get your hands dirty and examine the compost up close to see when it is ready for use. Horse manure will have lost its odour and will look more soil-like than manure.
Sheep and Goat Manure
High in both nitrogen and phosphorus, sheep and goat manure make good compost. Because of its low odour and pelleted shape, the manure can also be used as organic mulch, to dress garden beds in winter to assist in heat retention. The manure can be worked directly into the soil.
Sheep and goat manure can also make excellent compost. Its pelleted shape promotes good airflow through your compost pile. Mix your sheep and goat manure with your kitchen scraps, garden debris etc. Keep the pile moist and turn regularly.
Pig manure, while beneficial, must be very thoroughly composted before use. Pig manure needs high heat and must be turned frequently to compost successfully. Mix the manure with your usual compost items like garden debris, leaves, kitchen scraps. You should let this compost for at least six months, but ideally longer.
Pig manure is high in nitrogen, but not as high as chicken manure. It also helps retain moisture so it is helpful in planning your irrigation.
This is the final in a five-part series on Soil Health. For more, click here.