Saturday, November 14, 2015

(Sh)it's All Good

Avian flu is not the only disease that might come from raising chickens.  The common concern is e.coli. Some 60,000 cases of e.coli infections get treated every year in the U.S. and a few deaths do occur, but, though those rates are low, who wants to be sickened by some nasty bug?  Nasty, because the main source is animal excrement.

I could say "shit," but that's not what it is to me.  I treasure it and all other excrement because, in a display of nature's alchemical capabilities, crap can be transformed into black gold through the phenomenon of composting. There are several types of dung I currently collect. We have a backyard chicken owner in our church who lets us take their droppings to our community garden for fertilizer. I regularly visit a riding stables about 3 miles away to fill bags with horse dung and cart them home for composting.

Anyone who has pets can also compost their caca with a little forethought.  I bought a cheap, versatile Geobin composter for the sole purpose of composting the dog mess I clean up weekly. I now look forward to making those weekly rounds, especially with the handy, lightweight poop scooper my wife got for my birthday present. The warnings you hear about keeping pet poo out of your compost bin are valid.  However, once the segregated pet droppings undergo thermogenetic composting at 140 F or higher, and then remain in a pile for a year, they are safe to use in ornamental gardens.  It's this short heat and long cure cycle that keeps the risk of e.coli and numerous other pathogens low. In order to keep the pile from reeking, I simply layer sawdust on top of each week's deposit. I also add meats, fats, and bones from our kitchen scraps to the middle of this bin - another no-no for general composting.

The same approach can even be used for humanure, which requires more planning, preparation, and particularity.  The bins should be built to higher standards, a collection system is needed, and odor control must be thorough.  I'm not there yet, but am headed there.  It's not just about making better soil, it is also about protecting the environment.  Our current sewage systems don't do a good job of this.  Less is more when it comes to giving doo-doo the treatment it deserves.

Maryland's big business-friendly governor doesn't make those Eastern Shore farms compost chicken fecal matter before spreading it on the land.  Yet, another way to deal with pathogens from poultry litter is to make biochar out of it.  There is actually some governmental funding being applied to building up this capability for the sake of the Chesapeake Bay.  Biochar has also recently been ascribed the ability to sequester not only carbon, but e.coli as well.  Simply adding biochar to the soil can protect crops from carrying such pathogens.  It seems that combining thermogenic composting of any form of manure with only 10% biochar by volume would make the resultant product quite safe and result in a double win for the environment.

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