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I usually get questions about applying manure to gardens in the spring, when everyone is excited about possibilities of fresh veggies.Yet in reality, it is probably better to talk about this subject in the fall.No doubt there is benefit of using manure as a fertilizer in gardens! Manure adds nutrients, it improves the ability of the soil to hold water, and it improves the overall texture of the soil. That is why farmers apply it to their fields.
Yet along with the benefits, come some negatives. Some manures contain seeds that are passed through the animals, and of course, seeds become weeds. The other concern, and probably the most important, is the bacteria that can contaminate vegetables and cause human illness.I read an interesting story by Steven Ingham, with the Food Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, that outlined the manure hazard on vegetables and made some excellent suggestions on using manure in gardens. He pointed out, the risk of bacterial contamination is serious enough that the USDA National Organic Standards Program (NOP) specifically addresses when non-composted manure can be applied on vegetables.The NOP rules state that if vegetables have edible parts that might contact the soil (either directly or via rain/irrigation splash), then manure must be applied at least 120 days before harvest. For a crop like sweet corn, where the edible portion of the crop is high off the ground and is not exposed to soil, the limit is 90 days before harvest.
So, what does that mean for us in northern Indiana? In short, fresh or un-composted manure is probably best applied in the fall, not in the spring. Ingham’s research showed that applying fresh cow manure 90, 100, or 110 days prior to harvest may significantly increase the likelihood that E. coli bacteria from manure will contaminate vegetables.He also found that the length of time between the manure application and planting the vegetables is even more important than the manure-to-harvest interval. This is because vegetables are most sensitive to bacterial contamination just after sprouting.So, the bottom line for vegetable growers, both the professional and the backyard hobbyist, should either 1) use properly composted or otherwise sterilized manure (from a commercial source or your yard) for application during the current growing season, 2) apply non-composted manure in the fall before crops are planted the next spring, or, 3) apply non-composted manure as soon as possible in the spring and then only plant fall-season crops in the fertilized soil.For example, if you apply manure in April, avoid planting crops like lettuce and radishes. Instead plant them August, and harvest in September. If growers use option 3, great care should be taken to keep manure away from spring and summer-season crops. Avoid problems from runoff, and from tracking manure from one part of the field to another on boots or tools.Composting the manure is one way to reduce the bacterial issues in manure and still preserve the nutrients in the pile. And because the fall leaf drop is right around the corner, it’s a great time to be planning to mix leave and manure together. For more on composting, visit www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/ID/ID-182.pdf
Jeff Burbrink is a Purdue Extension educator in Elkhart County. He can be reached at 574-533-0554 or at [email protected]
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