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November 2014

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Sustainability: Giving a Crap.

Written by , Posted in Power, Sustainability, Sustainable Agriculture, Technology, The Farm

Sustainability: Giving a Crap.

I read an article once about what you do with all the poo. Not a pleasant thought, but one farmers must think about. In fact, my family’s farm has a pit that can hold 1.1 million gallons of poo. Liquid of course. That’s over a million bags of milk. That’s a million rooms painted. It’s 220000 fuel jugs. It’s 20,000 barrels of oil. You get the picture. Suffice to say, it’s a lot.

You’ve likely read my previous story about poo, but if you haven’t heard the story of our cows in the pit, click here. Suffice to say it wasn’t fun being in the thick of it for a few hours.

Poo is a magical thing. In fact, it’s a paradox. It is the beginning and the end all at the same time. And when it comes to farming, especially farming organically, it’s something we have to start giving a crap about. It’s a fertilizer that doesn’t come from a mine and it can be spread on fields of any crop type and can be spread during three quarters of the year. (That million gallon pit is pretty much for that other quarter if you didn’t figure it out before.)

When I was full time on my family’s farm my brother and I were pretty irreverent about poo. Usually by noon we’d drag ourselves from the barn for a change of clothing, likely leaving the first set in the barn itself. We graded the day by how many different changes of clothing we had. A three change day wasn’t uncommon. Trust me.

In the face of the mess we had to have some fun … not the throwing it at each other kind of fun mind you, but we figured, if half or more of our day was going to be used up be dealing with fecal matter, we may as well deal with the crap that went along with it. I couldn’t cry over the fact that I lost my glasses in the pit once. Ploop. We couldn’t change the fact that sometimes the pump didn’t work properly and we were forced to clean the pump by hand. (At least we had gloves – kind of) We couldn’t even complain when the manure spreader chain broke with a full load on so we were forced to empty it by forking. Yes … That was a forking good time.

No, we became cowmedians. Hey? What’s that you ask? Well, first of all we gave everything a roll playing designation poo style. That’s kind of like gungdom style, but better… and usually covered in manure. There was the plus ten gloves of poo and the fecal fork. We had the manure machete and the snow shovels of poodom. When we became pooped from throwing fecal names, we started making up different cow and or poo jokes, rarely eye rollers and never funny to anyone but us.

What do you call an angry Scottish cow? Red Angus

What do you call … well, perhaps I’ll leave that one to another time.

For all our irreverence however, we’ve come to appreciate that now more than ever, poo is becoming more valuable than fertilizer. Versatile and multifunctional, poo can and will pave the road to prosperity for farmers. It’s brown coloured gold. Perhaps it’s time we look at sustainability not through the lens of dollars and cents, but the projects that every farm should have to make the system better.

Poo can be injected or sprayed in liquid form for larger area crops like hay or corn and composted to rot down before applying to more tender crops like vegetables. The application rate is more complex than just spreading it on the ground until the pile is gone or pit empty. By feeding cows, or other animals for that matter, food that’s higher in nitrogen or phosphorus you will apply to different fields at different rates. As a consequence, we can only indicate that the value of poo is as much as three times the value of inorganic fertilizer.

Poo isn’t just fertilizer however. Before you spread or inject it on the field you can get power, lots of POWER, via a methane digester. I’ve spoken about digesters before, but if you’re curious about what it does, click here. They’re still rare given the initial capital outlay and we only have a pit, but boy is it big. Not as big as some granted, but should the technology become affordable and functional at our scale, I’ll be the first to suggest we line up. Oh, the best part? The poo comes out of the digester better prepared as fertilizer.

So, I ask you, what should we do with all the poo? Some day it’ll be gold and we’ll all wonder how we lived without it’s magic. In the meantime, we better let the neighbour know about the spreading schedule. I know I’ve admitted to not having a sense of smell, so I understand if you don’t entirely believe me, but everyone tells me the smell only lasts for a day or so. Just make sure you don’t hang your laundry the first two weeks of November.

We need to stop stepping in it and start spreading it around. Poo has the power, hell, it is the power. We need to start giving a crap about sustainability and one way to do that is to embrace the poo, though not literally.