Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Oh...the Smell !

Being a good neighbour is an integral part of running a sustainable farm. When your farm generates odors that overspill your property lines and negatively affect your neighbours on anything like a regular basis, I think it's a fail on the part of the farm. While I recognize the need for "right to farm" laws to protect well run farm businesses from trivial lawsuits, I also think there needs to be some enforceable laws on the books to penalize farmers that routinely violate their neighbour's right to enjoy their property.

The most usual culprit in stinking up the neighbourhood is manure, most especially manure that is being agitated and/or spread out of a pit; this stinks terribly regardless of the species in question, although subjectively, I think liquid hog manure smells the worst. As an aside, I have been on quite a few farms where the eye wateringly strong smell of poorly made and poorly fermented haylage or corn silage rivalled or exceeded that of pit stored manure. Well made, well fermented silage smells just a little bit sweet but it does not smell strongly at all. As another aside, sadly (and disgustingly), there also exist some farms where there is so much endemic sickness that the entire place reeks of unhealthy, unthrifty livestock. Pity the neighbours, farmers or not, that exist downwind of that.

Farms (of any size) don't need to stink. The farm I grew up on didn't stink. The farm I live on now doesn't stink....not even right beside our manure pile while I am loading the spreader. Both the farm on which I grew up and this one were and are heavy with livestock. In my opinion, there is no acceptable excuse for an ongoing stinky, putrid smelling farm. Any system of production that imposes it's pre-ordained smell on the neighbourhood as a cost of doing business is not one we need to be supporting with our food buying dollars.

Putrid odors are too often the smell of mismanagement. They are caused by large quantities of fertilizer (ammonia nitrogen and hydrogen sulfide gas) volatilizing into the air. Many farmers don't treat manure as the valuable, soil building resource that it is, and sadly, today many farmers don't even realize that properly treated manure doesn't need to be odiferous. Referring to my last blog, farmers who share an industrial mindset treat manure as a waste product with little to no inherent value; something to be got rid of as inexpensively as possible. This linear thinking "factory ag" mindset continually bites the entire industry in the rear. The damage this train of thought does to all of us is compounded exponentially when livestock intense operations are located in fragile environments without adequate cropland acreage to safely use up the manure these operations generate.

Even improperly managed, solid manure systems seldom smell as bad as their liquid counterparts. Well managed solid manure doesn't smell at all. Ever. Not even right next to the pile, as I mentioned earlier. The reason for this is that the nitrogen contained in manure is bound up by the carbon contained in the bedding. When there is adequate carboniferous bedding material...I prefer straw, but sawdust and shavings work too, ammonia stays bound up. This dung/straw product can be composted over winter and can be safely land applied at relatively high rates in the spring, summer or fall, reducing or eliminating the need for purchased commercial fertilizer in most instances. In addition to building soil fertility, properly managed and applied solid manure also improves soil microbial activity, soil porosity and soil organic matter.

There are a lot of elements that go into running a sustainable farm. Being a good neighbour is high on my list of things that need to get done right.


SmartAlex said...

It just wouldn't be spring without the smell of liquid manure wafting on the breeze. That's how we know it's beginning to dry up.

Funder said...

Do you have any tips on small scale horse composting? I am planning on rebuilding one of the falling-in run ins and fencing it off to be my compost shed. My horse isn't stalled, so there's no bedding mixed in with the manure. Should I add some shredded paper or wood chips or something with each poo-load? I want lovely black compost, not angry neighbors!

Jason said...


Lots and lots of paper, wood chips, sawdust, shavings, etc. Paper works well, but it packs and it won't rot if it's packed....not an ideal situation for trying to make compost. To speed the decomposition process along, provide lots of all the following: air, moisture, heat, a carbon source (wood/straw/etc) and a readily available source of nitrogen (ie manure).

Smart Alex; The irony is not lost on me. Liquid manure smells like shit. :)

Funder said...

Hmm. I will need to supplement with wood shavings, I guess, but I'm hoping to compost my crosscut paper shredder, err, shreddings. But that's exactly what I wanted to know, that I will need to add carbon.

I am thinking about using a perforated PVC pipe in the piles as I build them to help bring in air. No machinery to help me turn them, at least not at first!

Jason said...

That sort of paper might work.

Good idea with the perforated PVC pipe.

Turning it makes the decompostion process happen faster, but it will happen even if it isn't turned provided the other conditions are met. Anything you can do to keep the pile loose, moist, and warm will help you get where you want to go relatively quickly.

SmartAlex said...

I think the key to good horse manure compost is turning it. This, of course, is soooo much easier if you have a tractor with a loader. My step father puts a pile on the corner of one field for me. Basically, when the snow is too deep to spread, he unloads the spreader there in a pile. Each spring I find someone with a dump truck who wants to be paid in manure (wonderful concept) and I get it moved to my house. Then my husband takes over, turning the pile with his loader every two or three days until it stops cooking. It only smells for an hour or two and the smell doesn't travel far. Within a couple of weeks, every last hay stalk and chunk of shavings has disappeared. I sift the larger chunks out with a screen, throwing them back to the pile and use the finer finished material as mulch in my vegetable garden.

If you are unable to turn it, laying perforated PVC midway through the pile and piling over, or standing it straight up, and piling around will help areate it.

We also have some people who come in the spring and want fresh, pure manure only to go straight into coldframes to heat them up. Those we supply straight out of the stalls, being careful not to include hay or bedding.

If your neighbors complain about flies, get chickens. They love to pick through the pile looking for maggots.

Sylvia said...

I'm going to name drop. Lol. When driving through bridport there was a farm that we called the stinky farm. (Norris farm) I don't know what the fed, (brewers yeast?)but man they stunk! One time during an ag business/animal science outing, our class went to one of the nop farms. We were gathering corn silage and some of it had soaked into my shoes. I had to go to class after (stupid english lit. Couldn't stand the teacher) and he kicked me out! For stinkin' up the class. The next week, following a weekend, in his desk, he found a fermenting bag of silage, courtesy of a foster and an ouellette. Lol
way off topic of your post, sorry...but thought you may enjoy, seeing you may know of these families ;)

Jason said...

I know ALL of the families you mentioned and you are very right about Norris Dairy's stink ! I'm glad it got you out of English Lit and I'm glad the teacher got a little retribution ! LOL !

Peut etre parce que je comprends et je parle francais, at least en peu, I got along especially well with the large French Canadian dairy farming contingent in Addison County.

Sylvia said...

so does my husband. ;)
lots of Dutch in the area too!