I’ve worked on a couple of farms now. Most of them used manure on a regular basis to fertilize their plants. Now, I want to take a closer look if it is possible to grow vegetables without manure, the challenges of doing so and the opportunities. To get a good grasp, I also looked up multiple studies about manure free farming.
Can you grow organic vegetables without manure? It is completely feasible to grow Vegetables without the help of manure. However, doing so is more challenging, as it requires a decent understanding of organic farming, soil management and a good ability to plan ahead. Soil fertility has to be improved by other means, like green manure, crop-rotation or under-cropping.
Let’s first take a look at the Advantages of Manure. To get insight into the challenges of growing -organic- without it.
Why Manure helps your soil
Manure provides many benefits to the soil. It’s a compact package of nutrient, beneficial bacteria, and organic matter. The nitrogen in manure is also advantageous for the soil. Furthermore, dung enhances the consistency of the soil: It helps to retain moisture in sandy earth and will loosen up compacted soil.
Here’s the Crux, Manure works fast. Nothing is as readily available as fresh dung to your plants and soil. Animals are able to convert fresh plant matter into fertilizer within a very short amount of time.
So here’s the thing, the main advantage of manure doesn’t lie in what it adds to the soil, but its speed.
Pros and Cons of Manure
So we established what makes Manure so special. Let’s make a short list visiting the pros and cons of using manure for growing veggies.
- Works very fast
- Compact package of nutrients
- Very low-effort to produce
- Relatively low cost (if produced on-site)
- Enhances micro-organism activity
- Improves soil structure
- No tilling required (kind of)
Side-note: I am only considering organically produced dung here. There tend to be more issues surrounding bio-accumulation in Manure from feedlot farms.
- Manure needs to be composted if its high nitrogen (“hot”) -or applied in fall.
- Some dung (for example from a cow) will need added carbon
- A potential source of pathogens (zoonotic diseases)
- The smell can be an issue
- Can lead to nutrient build-up or run-off (esp. phosphorus (P))
- Discourages building a self-regulation soil (doesn’t prevent it though)
- Weed Seeds found in the dung
I honestly think the discussion about Manure is not so clear cut as many people make it out to be online. That being on both sides of the spectrum.
An argument often overlooked is the amount of effort needed to properly manage the use of Manure. It’s simply not done by just throwing some dung on a field and calling it a day. At least if you’re in it for the long run.
Is Manure essential?
So back to the core question: Is manure essential? Obviously no. It is certainly helpful, and pretty useful to give your crops a good’n’quick boost.
So should you use it? It depends. Think about your long-term goals, there are plenty of alternatives -in detail later- to choose from. It’s mostly a question about which method you want to adopt and whether the pros outweigh the cons for you.
My 2 cents: Our goats have their own separate territory for themselves. We don’t grow anything in there -they’d eat it anyway- but the manure helps the trees and shrubs to grow. We simply leave them be (except for feeding in winter and cleaning their housing of course). The large area available helps to establish a symbiotic relationship, that so far, works great.
My Garden, on the other hand, is manure-free. I prefer using other methods to fertilize my soil, mostly centering around compost and green manure.
So how the hell are you suppose to grow anything without manure? Well, let’s take a look at some organic alternatives.
Alternatives for Organic Growers
How do you keep your soil fertile without manure?
- Mulching: A great way to increase the quality of your soil is by mulching. This provides a couple of benefits. First, moisture is reserved longer (a nice added plus). Over time the Mulch will break down and release nutrients. Additionally, the added cover will invite worms to dig closer to the surface and balance out soil temperature.
- Green Manure: Growing nitrogen-fixing plants in the off-season is a widely established method to increase soil quality. These plants store nitrogen in their roots, so it’s already where you want it to be. Hence you don’t have to plow them. Further helping to reduce damage to soil’s integrity. The leftover plants can be used as Mulch or composted for later use.
- Fertilizers: Organic (Manure-free) Fertilizers are readily available. They provide a good alternative to manure in solving immediate deficiencies. They are very useful tools to help bridge the time until your garden is able to sustain itself. I firmly believe establishing an ecosystem within your garden is the way to go through.
- Crop Rotation: This is done so that nutrient reserves can be restored. Here’s an example: Rotate between Tomato Family, Bean family, and Root Vegetables. You can also give your garden bed a year to rest if you have enough space. There are a lot of different Crop-Rotation plans, so it’s best to find one that suits your Veggie preferences.
- The Three Sister: Is another variation of crop rotation. Here Corn, Beans, and Squash are interplanted. The Idea is more or less the same. The nice thing about this method: It produces a lot. Under-cropping works similarly. In essence, Nitrogen-Fixing plants are interplanted to refresh the nutrients in the soil.
- Composting: Make use of kitchen scraps and plant cuttings. Maintaining an active Compost heap is a great way to recycle nutrients back into your garden. I’ll link my recent Post about starting and maintaining a Compost.
- Growing Plant-Fertilizer: Here’s an interesting concept. Unoccupied land can be used to grow fertilizer-plants. Once they are “ripe”, you harvest them to either mulch your garden or compost them. According to the Veganic Agriculture Network doing this with animal Fodder would be more efficient than using Manure. To be honest, I am not sure if this holds true in reality, it’s an interesting idea anyway. This more or less uses the same principles of crop rotation but on an external planting lot, mostly to up the quality of the soil in another place.
- Seaweed: I haven’t tried that one myself, but heard a lot of good things about using Kelp (or other Seaweeds) as fertilizer. The salt build-up may be an issue if used in tremendous amounts. Rock dust works in a similar fashion. I wouldn’t recommend relying on imported nutrients for your soil though. Establishing a closed Ecosystem within your garden will help to guarantee constant good soil quality. Try to trim down bought fertilizers to a minimum. Nonetheless, they are a great tool to help with immediate issues.
Long term results of manure free farming
A Couple of farms around the world adopted a manure-free organic approach. PfalzBio GbR is one such example from Germany, they started growing without any animal-based fertilizers since 2011. Using both cuttings and liquid plant-based fertilizers to keep the soil fertile.
This is only anecdotal evidence, that manure-free farming is possible. I was looking into studies about this topic: The newest and most relevant one I could find (Link here) is very positive about this topic. So far, there is no reason to believe, that manure omitting farms, will somehow struggle because of it.
Scalability and Opportunities
How scalable is manure-free farming? This one is pretty interesting to look at. So far, most operating manure free farms are small scale. Some of them might be considered medium-sized at best. How practical & sustainable manure free farming is on a large scale still remains unclear. A lot is happening in this sector, so let’s stay on the lookout.
To summarize: let’s take a look at the most important take-aways from this post:
- Growing manure-free is certainly possible.
- Manure is an option, no necessity.
- Manure -like any other acquired fertilizer- has to be seen as a tool to improve soil quality right away, don’t rely on it exclusively.
- There are lots of alternatives (Composting, Green Manure, Crop Rotation, etc.)
Good News, you don’t have to buy a cow to help your veggie garden flourish. Building healthy soil is key. Creating a sustainable Ecosystem within your garden doesn’t require any farm-animals. Treat your soil good and you’ll have a great time growing food!
Can Human waste be an alternative fertilizer? This is known under the euphemism “Night Soil”. It’s a common practice, historically and can still be seen today. In theory, it’s a viable alternative to fertilizer. Even so, I would be careful in adopting this practice. Manures’ risks are relatively applicable to Night Soil. To get to the point, handle with caution.
Why does Manure have to be composted? Hot-composting your manure is advised, before applying it to a field. This helps to kill dangerous parasites, bacteria and weed seeds. Furthermore, its quality will improve. Benefitting both, the consistency of your garden’s soil, as well as, the Micro-organism inside. Reduction in odor and weight, along with better-storing qualities, are added advantages.