Sheep manure

Actually, the title of this blog is a bit of a test. I figured that with a title like this, only the hard-core sheep people will venture further. If you are reading this, you must either really like sheep or be terribly curious about things most people won’t even discuss — and I think that’s a great thing!

Several years ago, I got a call from a  man who goes to my church. He wanted to know what we do with our sheep manure and bedding. After a bit of discussion, we made a deal that works for both of us: we pile up manure outside our barns throughout the winter and early spring, and he comes to collect it at a very reasonable price sometime during the summer. Now, I know many of you are wondering why anyone would pay to pick up sheep manure — but that’s because you haven’t heard how very valuable sheep manure can be!

Sheep are very efficient at digestion, and unlike other ruminants, they break down virtually everything they ingest — meaning that no seeds make it into their manure. As a result, the partially composted manure and bedding that this man picks up to use on his fields is a terrific fertilizer that won’t introduce weed seeds that he’d have to later kill off.

Melissa's started tomato plants in June: garden center starter in the green pots on the left, and sheep manure compost in the black pots on the right

Melissa’s tomato plants in June: garden center seed-starting mix in the green pots on the left, and sheep manure compost in the black pots on the right. The difference in plant size is amazing!

The composted manure is also safe for plants. Even if it is spread immediately, it won’t typically burn the roots like other manures. My friend Melissa used her composted sheep manure this year to start her tomato seeds. To make things more interesting, she put half of the seeds in the sheep manure composted from her flock last winter, and the other half in a seed-starting mix from the garden center. The difference between the two groups was incredible, as can be seen in the photo on the left!

We typically have several people come to our farm each year looking for manure — and we are happy to oblige! After all, our flock produces over 300 pounds of manure daily (about four pounds of manure for every 100 lbs of sheep), which over the course of a single year comes to about 58 tons of terrific fertilizer. Not all of that is available to neighbors, however, since our sheep wander as they graze during the summer months, dropping their pellets across our pastures and fertilizing them in the process.

The manure pile behind the barn stays warm and steamy all through the winter.

The manure pile behind the barn stays warm and steamy all through the winter.

Yet we end up with about 30 tons of the stuff during the time that our sheep are indoors. All through the winter and early spring, our flock resides inside the barns where the manure accumulates in the bedding. To keep things clean and fresh, about every other week we routinely replace all the old bedding and manure with fresh straw, and in the process we build large piles of composting straw and manure behind the barn. The center of those piles builds up heat as it composts and stays surprisingly hot through even the coldest winters — you can easily see the steam rising off the piles as you walk past (in photo on the right). No wonder the sheep like to hang around the manure pile on cold days! By spring, all but the outside of the pile has composted down to a high-quality fertilizer ready for use in the fields.

So although the manure that comes from keeping sheep can be considered a nuisance, it can also be viewed as a blessing — another product that sheep produce over the course of a year that is useful and wanted by a particular segment of the population — often people living right next door or just down the road! It’s simply a matter of understanding how valuable this product can be and letting the right people know that you have some available!

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  • Jane says:

    I read about fly strike in the archives and even considered the deeper message of the sheep that lived vs the one who died. This is charming compared to that!

    I’ve heard that some zoo animal is like sheep and the dung is consequently just as prized. They call it zoo doo; you should have a cute name too but I haven’t thought of one….

  • Bev says:

    Gonzo gardeners, such as I used to be, would also be more than happy to pay for said sheep manure!

  • elaine says:

    Hi! Is sheep manure (mixed with bedding) safe to use uncomposted as mulch? I’ve just had a small truck full of it delivered to me and was hoping to use it immediately as mulch without having to wait for the composting procedure.

    • Dee says:

      Yes, as far as I know, sheep manure mixed with bedding is safe and will not burn your plants like many other manures. The only issue I can think of is that uncomposted manure may contain weed seeds in the bedding with which it is mixed. Those seeds are destroyed in the composting process, but would still be viable if present in your load. If you end up with this issue, it is not the manure (since sheep digestion is thorough enough to break down seeds), but the bedding itself that is the culprit. Good luck!

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