Farmer and author Gene Logsdon treats manure with the respect and attention it deserves — but from a different angle than has been common in recent years. He likes it.
Research in recent years has concentrated on how to de-stink and responsibly dispose of the concentrated animal waste produced on feedlots, in factory-farm chicken houses and piggeries every day. Breathing the air in those places has been accused of harming the health of farm workers.
The stench, which spreads far and wide downwind, is a major point of dissension between livestock producers and residents. Loud protests have been mounted when a cattle feedlot has wanted to expand or a chicken-raising facility has wanted to move into a rural neighborhood. Despite some advances, no affordable solution to the smell problem has been found.
But animal manure, according to Logsdon in “Holy (S-word): Managing Manure to Save Mankind,” is the future. (The title of his book actually uses a familiar, earthy term for manure. For our needs here, we’ve resorted to a family-friendly substitute.) Manure is gaining so much in long-term importance, he suggests only half-jokingly, that animal wastes will be “the hottest commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade one of these days.”
Chemical fertilizers are steadily rising in price. Potash from Canada, until now a cheap source of a major component of potassium fertilizer, is dwindling. Natural gas, a component of commercial nitrogen fertilizer, is being shifted to other uses, such as vehicle fuel. The era of abundant, cheap chemical fertilizers may be passing, Logsdon suggests.
His answer? Manure. Well-managed manure. His book discusses the pros and cons of various waste from various animals and the benefits of special coop and barn design. The book is a how-to on how to bed animals down, save the resulting manure pack and spread it properly.
It’s hard to believe that some of what Logsdon foresees is even possible. For instance, how will a farmer with thousands of acres of corn get enough manure at a reasonable enough price — including transportation — to take care of his crop’s fertilizer needs? And many, even most, farms these days are livestock-free operations — they raise crops, not animals.
But Logsdon is unstoppably, even wildly, optimistic. He sees farmers adjusting their operations so that they can be sustained by manure. He sees less concentration in human population, more farms and increases in farm animals everywhere. He even talks about the use of treated human biosolids as fertilizer on crops, something that leave many people shuddering.
Logsdon has raised a problem that will resonate in the future. As the price of chemical fertilizers rises, as the materials that go into them dwindle and as wastes from large-scale animal operations pile up, farmers will be looking for practical solutions. Perhaps Logsdon and his book can supply part of that.