Henderson on Sh—uh, Manures

Notes based on Gardening for Profit (Chapter 7) by Peter Henderson.

Back then when horses did all the work, there was lots of horse manure to be had. So Henderson took advantage of it and really piled it on.

At least six months before applying it, the manure was dumped in a natural depression. If there wasn’t one, they dug one out 18-24″ deep. They put up a 6′ fence around it. The wagons were pulled up next to the fence and fresh manure was tossed in, spread out evenly throughout the depression. Pigs were kept in the enclosure to break things up, and they were fed weeds and unsold vegetables from the field.

  • I wonder how large this manure pit needed to be. I guess it depends on how much manure he needed, which depends on how much land he was preparing (he’d spread 50 to 100 tons per acre).
  • Also, how many pigs? Two? Ten? That’s probably a function of field size and manure quantity, as well.

Henderson was a big fan of horse manure, and not just because it was plentiful. He considered it 1/3 more valuable than that of cattle and pigs, in terms of weight (i.e. 100 lbs of horse manure would work just as well as 130 lbs of cattle or pig manure). He also cites horse manure as being extra beneficial as a pulverizer on stiff soils.

He talks a little about factory waste products that he valued, such as hops from breweries, which he considered to be almost double the value of stable manure. He’d use it to fertilize, pulverize, and mulch the soil. It heats up quickly, though, so he turned it once every two weeks to avoid “fire-fang” (which sounds like an evil comic book character to me). Another factory waste product Henderson was fond of was horn and bone shavings (whale bone, to be specific – won’t find any of those shavings these days). He composted them with hot manure (one part shavings to fifteen parts manure) because it extracted the oil from the shavings. (How this oil would benefit the soil, I don’t know. Any ideas?) And finally, he mentions the use of “sugar house scum”, a mixture of blood, charcoal, and saccharine refuse–sounds like a lovely concoction, doesn’t it? I did a little research and found more details in A Muck Manual for Farmers, published in the mid-1800s:

Thirdly, Bone deprived of all its animal matter, calcined or burned bone, bone ash, sugar house refuse, or bone black. Bones are easily reduced to the state of ash by piling them up with a little light wood or fagots and firing the mass. The bones continue burning till reduced to whiteness, becoming brittle as pipe stems and very easy to grind, By this mode all animal matter is burned up. If bones are heated in closed vessels, leaving a small vent as in baking, bone black is produced containing all the earthy part of the bone mixed with the coal of the animal portion. This serves for decoloring sugar and other syrups and after having served this purpose several times by repeated burning, the spent bone black is sold to farmers and others as sugar house refuse; when mixed with the scum and other impurities arising during the clarification of sugar, it is more valuable for agriculture than simple sugar house black.

Interesting stuff. I’m so tempted to print out this book and read it but if I succumb to these urges, I’ll never finish reading a book. Ever.

Anyway, Henderson then goes on to describe his favorite concentrated manures. The front runner is pure Peruvian guano (as opposed to other types of guano?). He pounded it into a powder (I wonder how, and how fine?), sowed it at a rate of 1000-1200 lbs per acre after the ground had been plowed, harrowed it in, and planted immediately. If he couldn’t get guano, he used bone dust or flour, applied the same way as guano except at 2000 lbs per acre with similar or better results.

One interesting recommendation he made was to rotate your manures, just like you rotate your crops. I brought this up on the NewFarm.org forums and gained some insight from Steve Rogers, who runs Singing Pig Farm up in Oregon:

My thinking on the rotating the manure thing ties in with Albrecht. Back in the 1800s when Henderson was farming they didn’t have access to soil testing labs like we do. Adding the barnyard manure that Henderson spoke of using 1st builds up too much Phosphorous and Potassium while being short on Nitrogen. If you keep adding enough manure year after year to cover your Nitrogen needs then all of that P and K starts to lower your yields because too much of one nutrient causes another nutrient to tie up and become deficient.

Notice the amount he was putting one–75 tons/acre! Just to use some round ball park figure–let’s say the analysis on NPK was 1.5:1:1. 75 tons is 150,000 pounds of manure. Since the analysis is in %, 100lbs of manure yields 1 pound each of phosphorous and potassium, so he was adding 1500 lbs of each to the field–way too much. 2250 lbs of Nitrogen! Wow!

Now what did he go to next??? Pure peruvian seabird guano–the seabird guano I have used in the past is High Nitrogen. So the guano is giving him the nitrogen he needs without the huge P and K.

So I believe he was rotating the manure, based on empirical observations in his fields, to yield a balanced healthy soil that fit the specs that Albrecht laid down 100 years later.

Henderson had the solution for the problem that Albrecht would later describe.

So he really did walk the talk, didn’t he? Quite a farmer.

Next: Henderson on cold frames.


  1. Sonya said

    I can’t seem to find the book Gardening for Profit at the Soil and Library site. I searched by name and author. Can you tell me how to find it? Thanks.

  2. Sonya said

    Never mind. I found it by doing a google search. Love your blog.

  3. Yeah, sorry it’s not a direct link. Since Steve’s library is based on Australian copyright law, it’s important to go through the portal which clarifies how he’s able to provide these books for free–basically, copyrights that have expired and books that are no longer in print. I wouldn’t want to send people straight through to the articles and bypass the legal mumbo jumbo, since I’m assuming it’s part of what protects his site legally.

    As I’m going through Steve’s list now, though, I can’t seem to find this book listed. How odd. But it IS accessible through Google. Maybe I’ll drop him a line about it. Thanks for the heads up!

  4. I sent Steve a note and he responded promptly–the book is actually in the “homesteading” section, so I’ve updated my links accordingly. Sorry for the confusion!

  5. CP Knerr said

    Regarding the different types of manure, I’m not sure if you’ve seen these different types first hand or not.

    Horse manure has a lot of intact grass fibers left in it after it passes through the horse. Cow manure is a lot more digested with a lot more wet matter. Pig manure is also similar to cow but maybe a little bit more digested. When the hogs are out on pasture, there will be some grass or clover stems in the manure if they are on grass and clover. If they are in the turnips and forage rape they will not have as much fiber in the manure.

    One horse will produce ~9 tons of manure/year if I remember correctly. The straw that comes off my field goes to a girl with 8 horses, then is returned to me. I think they bring me 2000-2500 pounds of manure (full pickup truck with manure piled up way over the cab) and straw bedding per week which is deposited on my property in 5-6′ high windrows. It takes it a couple of years to break down unless I turn it.

    Regarding the number of pigs, if you read Joel Salatin’s “You Can Farm” or “Salad Bar Beef” he uses only 2 pigs to turn the cow manure, as if you add more hogs, the lazier ones will wait for the more ambitious ones to start to dig. He also spreads corn in the cow bedding so the pigs have something to root for.

  6. Yep, I’m pretty familiar with manures–pigs, horses, donkeys, chicken, ducks, goats, sheep, etc. I worked primarily with livestock for the first year as a farm hand (cleaning, shoveling, spreading). Do you find that horse manure is more conducive to soil health than other manures? Or do you use it because it’s convenient?

    Good tip about lazy pigs. I did read “You Can Farm” but I don’t remember him specifying the number of pigs he used. I do remember reading how he used pigs to turn bedding. That and how the chickens follow the cattle on pasture, eating the maggots from the cow pies. Excellent examples of how to get animals to do the work for you.

  7. CP Knerr said

    I just use horse manure because it’s the only thing I have a lot of access too. The area in which I live has a lot of 7-20 acre farms with 2-8 horses on them. There are also a few larger breeding farms for standardbred race horses where I’m sure I could get a lot of manure, if I had the means to haul it. Their current management strategy is to wait for the Genesee River to thaw in spring then pay the farm workers to dump the manure in the river so it washes into Lake Ontario.

    I’ve also used composted goat and rabbit manure.

    Until this year I did not have cows or pigs overwinter so did not have a good supply. Now I have a nice pile of both flavors!

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