Manure and Composting

Managing the manure from your sheep or other livestock is an important task, even if it’s not the most fun or desired one by many. Sheep manure management is important though for several reasons, most notably for keeping the sheep’s sleeping area free from fecal matter so they don’t potentially get sick from the muck. One way of handling the manure is through composting, the managed decomposition of manure and other biodegradable matter such as hay, food, etc.

Why Compost?

If your sheep are confined to a given area for any length of time, manure will build up in that area. We keep our sheep in the barn at night, even during the summer when they go out every day to eat pasture. Inevitably, manure will build up there, especially in winter when they’re confined to the barn everyday while the field rests. Compost is a viable way to manage the manure, to keep it in a confined location and away from sites where it does not belong such as your ponds, public waterways, etc. Regulations exist in most states regarding manure dumping into public domains or when the environmental cost is high. Sometimes even cities and counties may regulate where and how compost piles can be made so due diligence to the law is required! Even if you’re not subject to regulations, it would be good to manage your manure effectively and safely for your property and the environment.

Compost also offers another way of dealing with unwanted organic material, such as dead livestock. Safe burial can be challenging depending on your location, but can still be an option if the compost is not large enough to handle a dead sheep. When done properly, composting generates little to no smell, few vermin (we have an armadillo who digs in our compost piles as seen below), and the end-product is a great amendment to the soil.

Compost Piles

A well-managed compost pile is one that is aerobic, biologically active (microbes breaking down material), and controlled. There are many, many guides out there for the ratios of “greens” and “browns” and how frequently to mix and turn the pile, in general, it’s a science all on it’s own! We’ll cover some basics though on what greens and browns consist of:

Greens:

  • Grass
  • Weeds
  • Animal manure
  • Vegetables
  • Plant trimmings

Browns:

  • Hay and straw
  • Corn, sorghum stalks
  • Fallen leaves
  • Paper
  • Cardboard

The list is non-exhaustive, but greens cover recently clipped, moist plants and manure, things that generally are more “wet”. Browns are mostly more dead, dry things or things that are thick like stalks, hay, cardboard, etc. In a compost pile you need a mixture of both, all wetted down with a hose of water to start the microbes up to decompose it all. Luckily, if you’re cleaning out the barn, sheep manure often has a mixture of both already from bedding and hay/foodstuffs that has fallen to the ground. Sheep manure is in pellet forms (kind of like rabbit poo), so it will degrade faster if it is in a good pile.

When building your compost pile there’s several ways to handle it. Some use a compost bin system, where the compost is surrounded on 3-sides by walls. Others have set piles that sit on the ground. Again it is very diverse what you can do. We have linked a PDF compost guide from Whatcom County at the end of this post that shows some bin plans. You don’t need a compost bin system right away if you don’t have the means of building one, you can start with just piles and then build later if you need to. Whatever method you choose, the compost site is important however.

Your compost should be kept away from: Public waterways, your waters such as ponds, any wells, property lines, and your neighbors. Your site should be on as level ground as possible, because if it rains and drains into the areas above, well that might cause trouble. It should also be convenient for you to access and large enough for you to be able to turn your pile with ease. I’d also consider how close it is to a hose or easy-water source if you need to water your pile down some.

With an idea of what to put in your pile and where, what should your pile look like? As a compost pile decomposes it will naturally get smaller over time as the microbes and other creatures do their work. To start with however, aim to have something that’s no more than 3 to 4 feet high; if you have a lot of material, build it out length-wise so it resembles a rectangle. Keep the width at manageable levels for you, especially if you’re flipping the compost pile with your own shovel.

Currently our piles are a three-two system. We generally have three piles that are roughly rectangular in shape. At the largest they’ve ever been they were about 3 feet high, 3 feet wide, and 4 to 5 feet long. However those piles will rapidly shrink, we’ll flip them with a shovel to make two bigger piles so that we can generate the appropriate amount of heat. We tend to get more compost in the winter due to the sheep being in the barn, while in the summer it’s much less as they’re out on pasture. During the winter we aim to flip the piles at least once a month, and if it hasn’t rained, water the layers as we build it up again every foot or so. The more frequently you water and flip the faster it goes and the sooner you get some fresh compost (up to a certain point I’m sure, science once again!).

Using your Compost

With some pretty neat compost, now what? As it decomposes and degrades, it will become smaller and smaller. If you have a screen, you can use that to screen out any remaining large objects to leave behind to compost more. With the remaining fine compost, you got several options, all of which are good:

  • Spread it on your pasture (Subject to potential regulations double-check)
  • Spread it on your gardens
  • Fertilize potted plants

Compost when finished will be crumbly, somewhat dark (depends on your materials), and great at moisture retention. We spread it loosely during the winter on the garden beds as a fertilizer for the next year. We let the compost sit over winter, incorporating into the soil to replenish nutrients potentially lost during the growing season. Over the past three years our clay-garden soil has become slowly more loose and open and better able to retain water during the heavy downpours.

To know exactly what your compost nutritional/chemical analysis is though you’ll have to get a soil test. If you’re concerned about your pasture and garden soil nutrition, it would be recommended so that you aren’t wasting valuable compost where it is not needed.

Overall, composting is a great way to manage the manure from your sheep. It’s an aspect of nutrient cycling that you can manage in order to help keep your sheep healthy when confined, while still getting a bounty of compost that can be applied to your land. When done properly it will have little-to-no smell, keep manure out of our environmental commons, and give you a great workout if you’re flipping the piles by hand!

Composting Information and Guides:

Earth Kind: Building and Maintaining a Compost Pile

Whatcom County Small Farm Composting Guide (PDF warning)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting

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