When the Cows Come Home, Part 2: In Praise of Bull Dung

There’s a white, spotted cow staring at me with big brown eyes. She stares steady like an artist, as though studying my face, to draw later from memory. I meet her eyes and wonder why she stares. What does she see, when she looks at me?

 Mrs. Freckles, from a soil microbe's-eye-view.

Mrs. Freckles, from a soil microbe's-eye-view.

Then she turns unceremoniously away and moves off to a patch of fresh grass. On the way she stops. She lifts her tail and drops a pile of manure down on the pasture. 

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you very much.” 

What a feeling. Just like watching a banker count out a roll of bills and then deposit them in your account. It’s like opening up a birthday gift and finding exactly the thing that you wanted. It’s like winning a bet. 

And yet, it’s also unlike all of those transitory joys. It’s a deeper validation. It’s physical evidence that you care about our earth and the life on it.

When that manure hits the ground, the wonderful and diverse coalition of microbes inside of it meet their ancient friends, the soil microbes. They like each other right away, so they dance together and make humus, which is the ultimate plant food. 

 (A brief aside: Earlier on, in Part 1, I said that I shouldn’t say ‘bullshit.’ In fact, I believe that our culture should change the way we use the term ‘bullshit.’ Right now, when we say ‘bullshit,’ we mean deception. Worthless words. But in fact, the shit of bulls is quite the opposite: it’s a marvelous, renewable resource that helps complete the nutrient cycle through soil and plants. Granted, it’s not quite as good a fertilizer as cow manure: I’ve read some speculation that the term ‘bullshit’ actually originated from fertilizer salesmen who would take a load of bull manure and then cover it with a thin layer of cow manure, to make it seem like he or she was offering a whole load of cow manure. Hence: “a load of bullshit.”)

Cattle are sacred in India, partly because they provide draft power and milk, and partly because they produce manure. Indian villagers have found many uses for manure, beyond just fertilizer. They use it as a building material, as fuel for cookfires, and as an insect repellant. 

 The author brandishing a little piece of glorious fertility.

The author brandishing a little piece of glorious fertility.

If you haven’t experienced fresh, grass-fed cow manure before, you may be grossed out by this concept. Building a home out of cow dung and living inside of it? Celebrating each manure pile dropped on your field? Maybe you’re wondering what’s wrong with me.

But if you know good cow manure, you understand. Every good cow pie has an aura of fecund health. As long as it isn’t concentrated in a feedlot cesspool, it actually smells fine. There is a pleasant, earthy tang that permeates the whole field where the cows are grazing. Visually, each defecation falls into a loose, rounded spiral on the earth. Closer inspection (I recommend it) reveals the content of these fermented spirals: miniscule, dirt-colored shreds of grass, suspended in a viscous mix of probiotic microbes. The color is a deep olive green. If you’d like to examine a cow pie for yourself, come visit us. We have plenty. (But never too much.) 

While shreds of the grass that the cows have eaten are still visible inside their manure,  they have undergone a profound transformation, inside of the cows. Wolf Storl, author of Culture and Horticulture, describes the wonder of a cow’s digestion: “Cows carry microbial flora and fauna that break down, ferment, and digest cellulose, proteins, [and] carbohydrates… Complex acid-base relationships permeate the digestion process, [to] synthesize amino acids, vitamin B12, and fatty acids for the cow. No other animal can make such good use of roughage.” (Page 208)

And there is plenty of roughage available in our landscape. Humans have discovered approximately 12,000 species of grass, and uncountable other species of herbs and forbs, most of which can be digested and cycled quite well by cattle, but not at all by humans. 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar described how some Gauls resorted to eating grass during a Roman siege, and starved to death. A herd of cows could have prolonged their lives. 

(One problem with this otherwise miraculous process of cows’ digestion is methane production, as a burped-out byproduct. You probably know that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and have heard of cows being demonized as the source of it. Yet rice paddies emit more methane globally than cattle production. On top of that, nobody truly knows how much methane is released by fossil fuel use - but it’s a lot, and it’s rising. In addition, studies are beginning to show that methane production can vary enormously due to differences in diet. Kelp and algae supplements may decrease cattle’s methane emissions. Clearly the methane issue deserves its own blog post… this winter.)

And there is a chance that cattle may prolong the life of our society, if properly managed. Their manure is the key: when distributed over grasslands as part of an intensively-managed grazing system, it maximizes grass growth, including grass root growth, which builds up solid soil carbon, reducing atmospheric carbon, year over year over year. 

If you aren't enamored of cow manure by now, consider this statistic: cattle digestion takes 12 days to complete. The process is meticulous. In the words of Wolf Storl: "It is appropriate to compare the complexity of the cow's digestion to that of the human brain... whereas our senses are turned outward... the seemingly dull cow has its senses turned inward, into its digestion... it is the very image of a consciousness turned inward upon itself in deepest meditation." 

Click here for Part 3: The Inter-Species Covenant