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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Good cheap manure for your garden

By Nancy Turner
The Portland Upside
May 2009

Don Vetch fills the backend with some of the good stuff. (Photo by Nancy Turner)

If you are an urban gardener as I am, you know the value of manure. It retains moisture, breaks down compacted soil, is rich with nutrients and works magic in the garden. And who doesn’t want manure that’s ready to use without waiting six to nine months for it to compost? Most of us want pure, clean, ready-to-use, organic manure. I think of it as brown gold, because it’s that valuable for the productivity of my garden. The question is what kind of manure.

Not all manures are created equal. The common sources of manure are chickens, horses, steers, rabbits, sheep and dairy cows. Some of these critters produce manure so high in nitrogen it’s considered “hot” and unless very well composted, it will burn plants upon contact. Horse manure often contains weed seeds and the last thing a gardener wants is more weeds. Cow manure generally has a nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash ratio of 25-15-25, making it the most useful soil-builder around. The challenge is where to find it.

There happens to be one remaining dairy in Multnomah County, merely a half hour drive from downtown Portland: the Vetch Dairy, on Sauvie Island. Don Posvar, manager of the Vetch Dairy, has 97 Holsteins. Of the 60,000 dairy farms across America, most are small, family-owned dairies. His herd is about average.

When asked about cow manure, Don says, “Come and get it!”

Twice a day Don’s cows saunter into the milking parlor where he and his assistant attach milking machines to four teats per udder. Without causing the cow any discomfort, the machines simulate a suckling calf with a pulsating vacuum. A well fed cow will produce about ten gallons of milk per day.

The only things getting rich on this dairy are the milk and the manure. The average dairy farmer gets about 30 cents on the dollar for milk you see on the grocery shelf. The cost of fuel for tractors, milking machines, keeping cows warm in winter, transportation, and other supplies, has gone way up while the farmer’s income goes down. But Don’s dairy has been in the family for generations and his wife and kids live on the land. He’s not going anywhere.

His 85 year old uncle Bob still drives a tractor and says, “If I stop working I’ll die, so I keep at it.”

It’s reassuring to know that milk is the most highly regulated food product in the country. All milk is carefully tested for antibiotics. Don doesn’t use them except when a cow gets sick or has mastitis, an inflammation of the cow’s milk ducts. Milk from a medicated cow is discarded. No antibiotics make it into the milk he sells to Tillamook Dairy, Alpenrose, and the Northwest Dairy Association. He doesn’t give his cows growth hormones. This is good news for those of us who are concerned about what we put on our vegetables. When you consider how pure the milk is, you know the manure is too.

Cows utilize about 30 percent of what they eat, eliminating the rest. At the Vetch dairy all cow waste is contained in a large cement “pond,” where it creates aromatic slurry. This is sucked up through a vacuum hose to a gigantic dehydrator that separates the solids from liquids and spews the solids into a huge pile inside a metal shed. Here the manure cooks to 170 degrees. It’s smoking! Don says one day he was hauling manure in his truck and someone flagged him down, yelling, “Hey buddy, your load’s on fire!”

When you’re ready to amend the soil and fertilize your garden, give Don Posvar a call (503-545-5092) to be sure he’s not out plowing the back forty. Watch for children and dogs as you cruise down his driveway toward the barn. For $10 cash, he’ll hop on his tractor, fill a front-end loader, and dump it into the bed of your pickup truck.

Remember to take a tarp to keep bits from blowing off during the drive home. With a thousand pounds of brown gold to “invest” in your garden, just think of the great rate of return. There’s nothing finer than a lush garden of colorful flowers and a bountiful supply of food.


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