Catherine StewartIs bagged manure really ‘organic’?

The manure I use on my home garden comes from four very fat Lowline steers, known as John, Paul, George and Ringo. Our bovine lawnmowers graze on six acres of grassed river flat just out of Sydney, with plenty of trees for shade and fresh water pumped up from the river. We collect the manure from the paddocks and let it rot down for a while and then mix it into the compost bin.

our lowline steers

We’re not quite sure how long our Lowline steers (dwarf black angus) will live, as those in the know usually answer “until you take them to the abattoir“. As they have names, and we’d also have to go through the long, boring and complicated process of getting some new ones to eat down our grass, they will never make that journey. And so they continue to munch, chew, belch and crap, just like cattle like to do.

Baby photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo

Baby photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo

But it got me thinking about the bags of manure that most other gardeners are buying from their local hardware, produce store or nursery. Obviously someone hasn’t walked around a paddock picking up cow pats from beasts that have names, not when we’re talking that kind of quantity, so the only conclusion is that it must mostly come from from feedlot cattle. And chicken manure must come from intensive, ‘battery hen’ chicken sheds. If you’re someone who prefers to grow and shop ‘organic’, thinking you’re doing the earth a favour, are you really, when you choose to buy bagged manure instead of those packets/tubs of ‘artificial fertilisers’? And is that bagged manure purchase supporting and encouraging the sort of industrial agriculture you’d prefer didn’t exist? And how does it sit with your ‘organic’ views about not buying the meat/egg produce of cattle feedlots and battery hens?

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I have a problem with feedlot manure. It’s not because I’m panicking about the manure transferring some ghastly disease – I’m quite sure it’s all well-composted and properly regulated and managed. But I do have a philosophical and ethical objection to putting cattle into feedlots to grain finish them. Grain is not a natural diet for cattle, and they have to be given buffers and antibiotics to allow them to eat it without disastrous and painful acidosis results. During times of severe drought, this is preferable to letting them die of malnutrition. But I don’t think it’s right to do it so cattle will conveniently (for us) stack on weight more quickly. Feedlot cattle also typically have no shade at all and, although they can theoretically roam about their yard, trying to do that with another couple of hundred beasts packed in around them makes that unlikely.

Cattle Feedlot near Rocky Ford, CO Photo Billy Hathorn

In the USA, what’s somewhat euphemistically called ‘broiler litter’ is also added to cattle feedlot diets, and I’m sure you can guess where that came from. Keeping the proportion of broiler litter in the grain feed to under 20% apparently solves the ‘palatability issues’. Yuckety yuck. I’m sure tests will show it’s ‘safe’, but aren’t cattle supposed to be herbivores???? [Note that most Australian states prohibit the use of chicken litter in cattle feed]

Battery_hens_-Bastos,_Sao_Paulo,_Brazil-31March2007

 

I don’t buy grain finished beef for these reasons and I think if you have similar thoughts, then maybe you should reconsider your purchase of bagged cow manure. And if you only buy free range eggs because you don’t want there to be hens confined to little cages for our convenience, why are you buying the bagged chicken manure output of those battery farmed birds? What’s feel good ‘organic’ about contributing to the profit of an intensive chicken shed? And to further confound the issue, even the allegedly ‘free to roam’ chickens quite often turn out not to be at all.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

28 thoughts on “Is bagged manure really ‘organic’?

  1. Lois Fordham on said:

    Agreed with the points you make above, Catherine. I have been using bagged cow manure and chicken pellets. Can you suggest a good organic alternative to these, especially as it gets closer to spring?

    Many thanks,

    Lois

  2. Lois Fordham on said:

    Canberra

    • You can often buy sheep manure from the Canberra Farmers Market. I believe sheep manure is usually collected when they are penned temporarily for shearing, loading onto trucks etc. I remember that “well-rotted sheep manure” was always Peter Cundall’s favourite. There is also a free range chicken farm Mulloon Creek Natural Farms near Bungendore. They may use all the manure from their beasts on their own paddocks but it’s worth the ask. info@mullooncreeknaturalfarms.com.au

      • Lois Fordham on said:

        Thanks very much for this info, Catherine. I shall follow it up!

        Lois

  3. Yes, some serious ethical questions to consider here. I am lucky enough to be able to scoop up cow poo from a neighbour who can name all the beasts I’m cleaning up after. I do not check forensically what they eat, but they spend most of their lives chewing grass in wide open paddocks and looking pretty content at it.
    I buy bags of chicken manure from my egg farmer at local markets and while he is not true free range, he is an ethical and kind chicken farmer and his operations are far from the ghastly battery type set up. Life is not ideal for anyone, man or beast. We can but try to support what seems right and refuse products of blatant disregard for inequality – such as the Asian sweatshop garments and shoes made by exploited workers.

  4. SpicyRedHead on said:

    I too am lucky that our manure comes from a friend’s 2 beautiful Alpacas! She is happy for us to collect as much as possible for our veg and flower beds. I know exactly where it comes from unlike the sometimes mislabelled expensive composted manure in shops. Likewise our brood of chickens supply the chook manure that gets composted in any one of our 3 compost bins. Our worm farm supplies us with brilliant worm tea and the seaweed we collect from the beach also gets made into another form of freebie fertiliser. Did I mention also the wonderful smelly juice that drains from our Bokashi bin. We have learned to not only garden on the cheap, but also to make use all natural products. readily available to us.

  5. Jane Griffiths on said:

    I used to buy bagged manure until I also started thinking about these questions. I now have two hens who produce a remarkable amount of chicken litter for their size. In addition I get pig manure from a friend’s farm, where the piggies live as happy pigs should. I also go out to riding stables with large strong feed bags and collect manure from their piles. This is mixed with bedding (straw, sawdust etc) and I leave it to rot for a few months, then add it to my compost pile. One trip to the stables provides enough manure for at least a year – and it’s free. The one thing you need to be careful about is making sure they haven’t recently de wormed their horses, otherwise you run the risk if killing earthworms.

  6. Jeff Howes on said:

    Catherine,
    Your article was an interesting read, thanks.
    I will give the Cow Poo a miss now after reading your article and just rely on my small compost heap and plenty of mulch to slowly give that added ‘goodness’ to my soil.
    Interesting, how we now need to use cow manure and Seaweed conditioners on our garden. How did we grow plants years ago without these products????
    Jeff

    • SpicyRedHead on said:

      Jeff, I can well remember as a child in UK watching my neighbours literally fight to be the first to rush out and scoop up the horse droppings from the milkman’s horse and this was in the mid 1950’s. The manure was considered ‘street gold’ for the veg garden and rose beds. So I think gardeners over the centuries have always used some kind of natural products to add that certain something to the soil. Nowadays the big companies cash in on making $$$$ from something we used to scrape up from the street or pick up from a nearby farmyard, knowing full well many gardeners are time poor and simply can’t go around sourcing these products themselves.
      Happy Gardening!

      • You make a good point Jeff. I think we once gardened much less intensively, and planted shrubs, which usually grow just fine in lower nutrient soils. Soil improvers were only used in the vegie garden. I think we’ve become obsessed with adding organic matter as a solution to all gardening woes. Most soils are only 5-7% OM naturally but we try and make ours way more than that, assuming always that more is better. I will do another blog soon about adding OM to soil and how much is enough – or too much.

  7. Robyn on said:

    Catherine,
    I normally enjoy and appreciate your articles, but not so this time.
    While you are rightfully concerned about Animal welfare and the ethics of where your manure comes from, please be aware, not all feedlots don’t have shade. Also be informed that intensive farming came about through demand, from urban consumers, not due to a farmer thinking I need to put animals in a confined space.
    If you wish to speak to farmers and feedlotters directly, pop over to the facebook page: Ask An Aussie Farmer, and provide them with your questions, all questions are welcome and you will be directly dealing with farmers. Thank you

    • HI Robyn – Yes I agree that feedlot farming came about through consumer demand. That’s one of the reasons I’m raising this issue. If consumers stopped buying the products from feedlot farms, including manure, this type of farm would have no reason to be.
      While I’m sure there are feedlot cattle farms that provide shade for their animals, there are also many that don’t. I also wouldn’t like animals being kept in a large open paddock with no trees but that’s less common.

  8. Sherrill on said:

    As a small family owned feedlot I can only disagree with several statements above. Many ‘facts’ you refer to are based off the Amercian feedlot model. Our Australian feedlot industry is very different. Our cattle eat a diet that does include grain, but also hay, silage and cotton seed for roughage. There are NO antibiotics in the ratio . There are definitely NO animal products in the feed rations. The only time an animal in our feedlot is treated with antibiotics is if it is injured or ill and treatment period is followed by a withholding period when the animal can not be slaughtered. The website operated by ALFA (Australian Lot Feeders Association) answers many questions (feedlots.com. au). In Australia the majority of cattle are feed for either 70 days (the typical grain fed meat offered by butchers) or 100 days (used both domestically and exported). We care for our cattle greatly while they are in the feedlot. Waters are cleaned daily, pens are walked through to check on health, pens are cleaned regularly. We utilise all manure on our cultivations which means we do not need to apply synthetic fertilisers. We care for all livestock in our possession and can guarantee they have an excellent life prior to slaughter.

    • Hi Sherrill – I did a lot of reading and research before I wrote this, including on the ALFA website but also NSW DPI & the Aust Veterinary Assn. As GardenDrum’s audience is international, I had to raise the issue of broiler litter in the USA but have stated very clearly this doesn’t happen in Australia. And I also have not said that cattle are continually fed antibiotics. But the incidence of diseases like respiratory illnesses and acidosis caused by eating grain which then require antibiotic treatment is much higher in feedlot animals. Grain is not a natural food for cattle, which have alkaline stomachs designed for digesting grass. They have to be introduced to it gradually over several weeks, otherwise they are quite likely to die from grain poisoning. Ionophores such as Rumensin are often included in the feed to modify the rumen and reduce the amount of dangerous lactic acid produced.
      I’m sure that feedlot farmers do care for their animals and watch their health carefully. But which ever way you look at it, it’s not ‘organic’, and if that’s what a consumer prefers to buy, whether it’s meat or manure, then they need to think about how those products have been produced.

      • Sherrill on said:

        Feedlots employ the services of a nutritionist who plans out a rations that will gradually allow the cattle to adapt and keep them in optimum health. Very similar to a dietician for people. Nutritionists are employed across livestock industries including grass fed beef producers, as depending upon the location, cattle can often be deficient in certain dietary requirements and require supplementation during certain periods of the year. We also run a grass fed herd of Stud cattle. Given the opportunity they would chose to eat a grain based ration before grass (there are times when they are supplemented mostly when the cows have calves at foot). They gallop when they hear the tractor in the hope that there may be a ration for them coming and they are far from starving. Feedlots also complement the grass fed producers especially during dry times like those currently being experienced in parts of Queensland. It is very easy to draw a conclusion with no experience in an industry. I fail to understand why you would even raise the broiler litter unless it was in an attempt to scaremonger. There are also other alternatives to antibiotics to treat acidiosis which are based on natural “organic” remedies, but if done correctly the incidence of acidosis is small and can easily be corrected through careful monitoring and adjustments to the rations. The respiratory disease you allude to is BRD I guess. This is actually introduced to feedlots by mobs of cattle coming in from infected grass fed properties in many instances. The Australian Feedlot industry is a very well monitored industry. They are very proactive in their efforts to ensure animal welfare is at the forefront. The vast majority of feedlots in Australia are accredited under the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and are independently audited each year. At present ALFA has also addressed the Freedoms of animal welfare on their website in a very informative manner. I accept that people have different opinions, but would much prefer that the formulation of the opinion be based upon actual facts, especially when they are attempting to sway the opinion of others.

      • Meg on said:

        Organic product should be clearly labelled with the logo of the grower’s certifying body, & their registered number. That way you can be confident that the goods are grown or prepared to the strict standards & protocols demanded by that certification. These products carry a price premium. If it’s not labelled goodness knows what it is.

  9. sandra pullmam on said:

    Excellent article and am now in a quandary because it is so convenient to go the big B so I will ask at my local nursery where their cow manure comes from.

  10. Meg on said:

    Cattle running in paddocks of native pasture eat seeds & roughage, as do cattle on improved pasture, or a forage crop. Cattle in feedlots eat seeds & roughages too. A diet one would think thar they have the capacity to thrive on as it is very natural to them. The seeds of some of the native grasses, shrubs, trees etc that cattle graze on can be eaten in large quantities, when Mitchell grass is in seed they will eat the seed heads off as though it has been mowed. Often at feedlots the grain is treated to make it even more digestible by milling, cracking or rolling it, or a cooking process such as steam flaking.
    We have had many cattle through feed lots & have followed their progress through the system, having seen them in the feedlot, & seeing them on the slaughter floor & in the chillers at the abattoirs, we gain valuable feedback about their performance on feed & as a carcass. The information from the feedlot includes a hospital report, only ever had a very odd one hospitalised with pneumonia one cold wet spell, happens in the paddock too. The difference is that in the feedlots pen riders go through the cattle every day, removing any unwell or unthrifty beasts for attention, so unlike paddocked cattle, they are diagnosed & treated much more quickly. Feed lot cattle look magnificent, shiny in the coat, & contented, I remember visiting a feedlot, a very large one, early one morning & the air was full of dust as the cattle romped & played in their pens.
    Now we do have an organic herd, but if the season is too dry to fatten them at home, they are sent for sale, & most of those cattle would be finished in feedlots. Some certified organic cattle too are finished on certified improved pastures or crops where they would certainly be eating grain.

  11. Ros F on said:

    Catherine,
    Sounds like you’ve put the “cat-tle amongst the pigeons(hens)” here!
    Having a courtyard sized garden in a Sydney suburb, not having access to “real” manure and a car in which I don’t care to carry unsealed manure even if someone offered some to me, what are my options?

    • Oh yes indeed! GardenDrum is a good place for differences of opinion but that’s always tricky. Inevitably one ‘side’ will accuse the other of being misinformed and then true debate ends.
      Re alternatives to filling your car boot with manure, you can always add organic matter to your soil with home-made compost and carp-based fish fertilisers. I think the jury is still out on biochar. But I hear guinea pig manure is an excellent fertiliser!

  12. Really interesting (and disturbing) post, Catherine, thanks! I think it was the “broiler litter” thing that really pushed me over the edge. Labeling of compost and manure is definitely confusing, intentionally so, I’d say.

    • Adrian Swain on said:

      Catherine, I think there is a parallel here to consider between home grown tomatoes and super market tomatoes and respectively grain and grass fed beef. IMO grain fed is flavourless by comparison to grass.

      When economic rationalism comes in as a relevant consideration in nutritional food supply what can we expect. Its like the bounce test for tomatoes……

      Similarly completely off topic but on the economic rationalism tip, the NSW TSCA act has economic viability as a consideration for the prioritisation of recovery and protection of endangered and vulnerable species and ecological communities.

      An open enquiring mind is fed on the fruits of our land not the drippings from the machines.

  13. Chris on said:

    For those in Sydney, Enfield produce sells cow manure they claim comes straight from a dairy farm. A better alternative perhaps.

  14. Lin on said:

    We are a retired couple in the 70s living in the upper Northern Sydney. For health, we are trying to start an organic veggies garden, but we need a few bags of this organic cow/ chicken poo that you had mentioned, which are harder to find than gold!

    Would appreciate greatly if you could suggest where we could locate such a supplier whom we could physically pick up some of this dried organic moo poo ourselves right on the paddock and pay for it as well. Thanks Catherine.

    • Spicy Red Head on said:

      Lin – have you tried looking on Gumtree, there are usually several ads for free manure in suburbs surrounding Sydney. Good Luck!

  15. Pat on said:

    Living in a semi rural area close by I often see bagged cow and horse manure for sale but have misgivings about the weed seed that it may contain.

    • Yes that is definitely an issue with manure from the farm. Cow manure is less likely to contain weed seeds itself as it’s gone through a ruminant’s digestive tract where most have been destroyed but horse manure can be quite weedy – depends on what they’ve been eating!
      From my own experience, picking up cow manure from the paddock means picking up bits of grass with it and inevitably some weed seeds. I always age the manure for some time in bags, or put it through the compost. Then I put it through my electric shredder which pulverises it nicely and then use it by spreading it over the surface and not digging it in. That way if anything does germinate it’s easy to spot and pull out.

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