Manure has been used as a fertiliser for more than 5000 years. Without it, agriculture and permanent settlements would have never been possible. Manure is chock full of precious nutrients, especially nitrogen, which plants need to grow. A little more than a century ago however we figured out how to produce nitrogen synthetically. The age of artificial fertilisers was born. Manure gradually lots its status as a valuable resource and especially in the past 60 our industrialised agriculture has come to view manure more as waste - a problem to managed. Manure would be stored in ever larger manure pools with fewer and fewer farmers piling manure up in a manure heap - with devastating consequences.
Manure that is stored in a manure pool sits there anaerobically until it is brought out. When it comes to manure, which is a nutrient bomb, nature takes care of it by letting aerobic bacteria and insects do their work. Nitrogen is turned into protein, which then gets distributed by the insects.
On a lot of farms today cows spend most of their time in the stables, especially in winter time. This was true 500 years ago as well, but then the farmer would take every single manure pat out of the sables by hand and pile it up, gradually. Insects and bacteria had enough time to do their work on the manure heap in aerobic conditions - these insects and bacteria need air to work. On the overwhelming majority of farms today however manure heaps do not exist at all any more. Instead, all maure gets shoved down a hole and into a manure pool. Inside that manure pool, no aerobic bacteria can survive, instead anaerobic, rotting bacteria multiply.
The problem is that the precious nitrogen in the manure turns into volatile substances like ammonia. Ammonia is an aggressive compound which literally burns plants. Nitrogen in the form ammonia would never exist in nature in anything more than trace amounts. Nature does not know how to deal with it. So when the manure is being brought out to the fields, that manure turns out to be extremely aggressive not only on the plants, but the soil as well. Earthworms, which are the backbone of a fertile soil, literally burn their skin. They come rushing to the surface, suffocating. The anaerobic, rotting bacteria which habe multiplied in the manure pools are detrimental to soil fertility as well. They inhibit the healthy aerobic microbial life in the soil. To top it off, a good 30% of the precious nitrogen evaporates into the air in the form of ammonia - more than 750 000 tons of it every year in Germany alone - causing acid rain and that awful smell we all have to endure when we drive through the country side in spring time.
It is said that Aristoteles called referred to the soil as our planets stomach. Following that line of though, if our soils could vomit, we would surely suffer a flood of biblical proportions.
In the past 60 years, we have seen humus levels (a measure of fertility) and microbial activity in agricultural soils drop by around 50% in Switzerland. At the same time most agricultural soils as well as non agricultural soils have a massive oversupply of nitrogen. This has lead to a dramatic loss in biodiversity of plants as well as animals and insects.
Rudolf Steiner, the father of the bio-dynamic movement realised at a very early stage that the modern, chemical-based industrial agriculture was heading down the wrong path. In 1923 he held a series of lectures where, among other things, he emphasised the importance of composting and keeping our precious nutrients in a cycle - the natural cycle of life, death, transformation and re-birth. Rudolf Steiner realised the importance of composting in this cycle and put some quite emphasis on it. He created what I would call a ritual around composting which included among other things the creating of the horn-manure. I interpret this is a spiritual addition to a physical process.
In Rudolf Steiner's days, composting was an incredibly strenuous physical process. Without today's technical aids such as the tractor and mechanical compost turner, the manure heap would be turned and aerated by hand. Nonetheless, a core group of farmers formed around Rudolf Steiner's philosophy and started implementing his ideas. This from of agriculture came to be known as bio-dynamic agriculture.
The art of composting experienced its second great impulse when Ehrenfried Pfeiffer started using technical/mechanical aids. His goal was the meticulous documentation of the aerobic composting process and devising a methodology for producing universally high quality compost. After a period of little progress in the field of composting in the 1960s, Uta and Siegried Lübke from Austria became the composting movements torch-bearers in the 1970s for an entire generation. Their daughter Angelina Lübke and her husband Urs Hildbrand have ever since been tireless working on scientifically exploring and documenting the art of aerobic composting. Thogether they have started hundreds of composting projects world-wide and pass on their knowledge in regular week-long workshops.
I learned composting from Angelina Lübke and Urs Hildebrand and from the master farmer Martin Hegglin on whose farm I worked full time for 18 months. Martin Hegglin learned the art of aerobic composting from Uta and Siegried Lübke in 1997 at a compost course in Austria. Martin immediately recognised the tremendous value in composting his manure and completely adapted his stables and changed his manure management in a way that he produces no liquid manure at all.
The goals of composting
- Build-up of a stable clay-humus and soil structure
- Increase water-retention capacity of the soil
- Healthy fertiliser for plants in the form of humus (not the "force-feeding" of nutrients int eh from of chemical fertilisers of water soluble nutrients in manure)
- Keep nutrients in the nutrient-cycle - reduce nutrient loss in the form of run-off or evaporation (Ammonia emissions)
- Increase microbial activity in the soil (breathe life into the soil)
- Destroy weed seeds
- Destroy pathogen bacteria
According to calculations by the German Federal Environment Agency, the environmental costs per kg of ammonia emissions amount to 27 euros - for an average Swiss farm with 20 cows that amounts to 30,000 euros environmental damage per year - these could be avoided by composting. Additionally, composting builds up humus in the soil, which stores enormous amounts of carbon - CO2 from the atmosphere. Agricultural soil can store up to 300-500 tons of CO2 per hectare, depending on the soil type. Today, conventional agricultural soils store between 40 and 100 tons of CO on average.
The environmental, animal welfare and human health benefits of composting are truly enormous.
For the full article, lease see the dedicated SwissBioFarmer page for Aerobic Composting.