Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Using Sheep Manure as an Organic Fertilizer in the Garden (and What's Keeping Me from Working in Mine)

Audrey's Twins
Audrey's twins, ten days old.

This is what's keeping me from the garden—all the cuteness down at the sheep barn!

Realization of the Day:
I haven't put anything into the ground yet, including the $39 worth of mail-ordered onion and leek plants that arrived a week and a half ago.

Lambing season is in full swing here on the farm, with two sets of twins and a big spotted girl arriving in just the past two days. All planting woes aside, the good news is that, besides being surrounded by adorable bouncing babies, I'm building up my organic fertilizer empire!

I didn't start keeping sheep because of their manure, but it's turned out to be a great perk. I'm convinced that it's the reason the fruits and vegetables I grow are so flavorful and sweet.

Any kind of natural, organic fertilizer is better for your garden—not to mention the environment—than the chemical kind. What's neat about manure is it helps your plants while also adding humus to the soil. And sheep manure is one of the best types of fertilizer.

According to the USDA, sheep manure contains more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash than both horse and cow manure. And one of the best things about it? It doesn't stink!

My battered copy of Raising Sheep the Modern Way, which I bought shortly after acquiring my first flock back in 1995 and still turn to for help, says this about sheep manure:

Because sheep make use of ingested sulfur compounds to produce wool, their manure does not have the unpleasant-smelling sulfides found in cow manure. It is also in separate pellets, or in pellets that hold together in a clump [which looks kind of like a pinecone], and thus is less messy in the garden. . . [In the pastures], its pelleted form causes it to fall in the grass instead of lying on top of it where it might smother the vegetation.
And unlike cow and chicken manure, sheep manure isn't 'hot,' which means it doesn't need aging, so you can use it right away in the garden. The book goes on to say:

For use in your own garden, clean out the barn twice a year, in spring and fall. The wasted hay and bedding left on the barn floor will have absorbed much of the manure, containing valuable nutrients. Being inside, they are undamaged by rain and sunshine, just waiting to be reclaimed.

Spread a thick mulch of this on a portion of the garden and don't even dig it in—just set out tomato, zucchini, and cabbage plants in holes in the mulch, where they will grow without weeding. The portion of the garden which had the mulch this year will have the remains of the mulch completely deteriorated by the following year. By alternating mulched halves, you always have one half heavily mulched for setting out plants, and one half to dig up and plant seeds.
I do something similar, though I usually transplant the seedlings into the soil of my raised beds first, and then heavily mulch them. The consistency of the barn bedding hay depends on the season, the weather, and how much time the sheep are spending in the barn.

Mulching the Newly (and Very Late!) Planted Garlic Bed
Pitchforks are one of the best inventions ever.
This time of year, when the pregnant ewes are living in the barn and attached barnyard, they're eating the hay we put up last summer and constantly knocking it out of their bunk feeder and onto the barn floor. This mulch is light and dry, as you can see in the photo above which is, I'm embarrassed to admit, my garlic bed—that didn't get planted until a couple of weeks ago.

The mulch is thick enough to smother out weeds, but light enough for the garlic sprouts to be able to poke through. (I'm hoping to have a chance to write more about my pathetic garlic planting soon.)

Come summer, the hay and manure on the barn floor have all been packed down, and it comes up with a pitchfork in large clumps, which makes a nice, heavy weed barrier. You can see a photo of what I'm talking about in That Outfit Could Kill You, which tells the lighthearted story of why I rarely wear dresses around the farm anymore. Just be sure to clear some space directly around the plants, especially if they're very small, so they don't get burned by too much fertilizer.

What's nice about using bedding hay this way in the garden is that it gives the plants a light dose of fertilizer every time you water or it rains. Eventually all the manure will have seeped into the soil, and you're left with a nice looking layer of dry hay mulch, which will break down over time, improving the soil even more.

I realize not many gardeners keep sheep, but you may be able to find someone nearby who does—and they most likely have a barn in need of mucking out. And since ost of the sheep farmers I know never have time to plant much of a garden (I can relate!), they'll probably be happy to let you haul off as much fertilizer as you want. Cleaning out the barn is strenuous and often sweaty work, but your garden will thank you—and I'll bet you'll be able to see and taste the difference come harvest time.

And now if you'll excuse me, I need to head back down to the barn. Thank goodness we have two freezers full of our grass-fed meat, because the way the lambs have been arriving, I don't see myself picking many fresh vegetables anytime soon—and there's only so long a girl can survive on cute.

Daisy and Bear looking at Eugenie's twin girl

Need a break from toiling in the dirt? Come have a look at lambing season!
3/25/10: Those Ears!
3/26/10: Mama Love
3/28/10: A Sneak Peek

© FarmgirlFare.com, the salad craving foodie farm blog where thankfully the overwintered Swiss chard in the greenhouse, as well as the new volunteer seedlings, are all growing like mad. If you haven't yet discovered the delicious joys of growing Swiss chard from seed, you're really missing out!


  1. Thanks for all the good info on sheep manure. I may go on a scouting mission to see if I can find someone raising sheep around here who wants to unload some poo. The soil in my garden isn't too bad because I've spent so much time on it but we're having a heck of a time w/ our lawn and it sound like some nice sheep pellets would be a great first step.

  2. THANK YOU for this post. When we added the manure-hay to the garden last spring, we had a really hard time incorporating it all into the soil. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to just use it on the surface as a mulch. But you can bet I'll be doing that this spring.

    Sometimes I'm not so smart.

    The only real drawback to the manure-hay? The incredible number of flies that appear. Gross. Thankfully, they only last a day or so.

  3. the shots of Audreys twins look great. thanks for posting.

  4. One day, one day I'll be able to toss sheep manure onto my garden beds...for now, I will make due with the organic amendments and my soil test kit.

    Your way seems a lot easier, once you get past the whole hauling of sheep manure part :)

  5. I use a lot of goat manure in my garden. My orchids love goat manure and they flourish after each feed of fertilizer.

  6. Thanks for this post, FG! Since I have only five chickens, I don't have nearly enough manure to let age and then spread in my flower beds...but there's a small sheep farm outside of Small Town. I bet the farmers would let me take home a truckload of bedding from the barn. It's SO good to find out that it's all right just to lay it on top of the soil--lazy gardeners, rejoice!

  7. Thank you for the info, I have access to sheep fertilizer and was unsure how hot it would be, happy to hear it is ready to use.

  8. I'm so glad to read your advice. I'm planning a small garden and just picked up some raw manure from the local sheep farm. The farmer told me to compost it for a month and add some lime to soil in my freshly tilled soil in the fall. Come spring, it will be ready. I can't wait to start eating my own veggies instead of the cardboard synthetically fertilized produce I buy from the big supermarkets.

  9. I just added 3 ewe-lambs to my ewe-lamb/ram-lamb pair. I stopped on the way home to show them to a friend who asked what you do with, or get from, sheep. I went through the list - fleeces, milk, sheepskins, lawn mowing, lambs, meat... but forgot about fertilizer until I got home. When I told her, she said sheshad heard it takes many years to break down enough to use it on your garden or it'll burn the plants. I knew it wasn't that long - at most a year, like chicken and cow - but said I'd find out for sure. I was very glad to find this piece. I don't have to wait at all. :) Well, except for spring to come, which I'm in no hurry for as I like winter very much and it's just getting started.


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