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Proper Fertilizing with Manure: Increases Plant Yield and Saves You Money

By Vicki McClure Davidson

Good old-fashioned manure is still one of the best, and cheapest, things used to encourage plant growth in your yard or garden and to condition the soil. With more Americans starting to grow their own fruits and vegetables to offset soaring food costs brought on by the downspiraling economy, it's important to know how to properly use manure. This is true for all plants, but especially for plants that will be eaten.

Manure increases the organic content of the soil, which improves its structure and stimulates bacterial and fungal activity, making other nutrients more available to plants.

Manure, if used correctly, is a cheap and effective fertilizer in home gardens and yards. Be cautious when using it around edible plants. | Photo credit: Dreamstime


Manure, if used correctly, is a cheap and effective fertilizer in home gardens and yards. Be cautious when using it around edible plants. | Photo credit: Dreamstime

While the highest concentration of nutrients is found in fresh livestock manure, aged or composted manure is the safest for plants. The soluble salts that are in fresh manure can damage plant roots, and the nitrogen it contains is in the form of ammonia, which can also hurt growing plants.

The best time to buy manure is in the fall. Work it into empty garden beds. Or, you can collect the manure from local sources in your area and compost it for use in the spring. It is highly recommended that you compost fresh manure before using it. One benefit of composting it is that if the compost pile heats up sufficiently—110 deg F to 140 deg F—the process kills most weed seeds mixed with the manure. This greatly reduces potentially emerging weeds when spring arrives.

Fresh manure that is heated in a compost pile will also ensure the killing of any potential E. coli strains that may be in the manure and could transfer to edible plants. E. coli is a bacterium that is normally found in animal intestines and usually is not harmful. However, there are several strains, and some of these can be deadly, particularly to small children, elderly adults, and people with lowered immune systems. Caution is strongly recommended that you compost any manure that is intended for adding to the soil of edible plants.

Important to Remember: The surface application of manure without plow-down or disking poses the greatest risk of nutrient losses, through evaporation, volatilization, and surface runoff. Therefore, don't apply livestock manure on slopes that are either frozen, snow-covered, or saturated. These conditions increase the threat of runoff. Also, you should never apply manure on slopes that are next to lakes, rivers, or streams, or within 100 feet of wells, springs, or sinkholes. Runoff will contaminate the water.

According to the University of Illinois Agricultural Department, there are two recommended methods for applying manure to large plots of land—knifing and drag-hose injection— to decrease wasteful runoff and get more beneficial nutrients to the plants' roots, where it belongs.


Knifing manure into the soil is believed to be the best way to prevent nutrient loss and to protect surface water. It is also the best way to incorporate manure in conservation tillage systems because it disturbs a minimal amount of crop residue. The drawbacks are an increased investment in equipment and greater energy requirements.

Drag-hose Injection

Drag-hose injection of manure is a combination of irrigation and injection. A flexible hose runs from a tractor-powered pump at the holding pond or pit to the field tractor. Drag-hose injection eliminates the need to transport manure to the field in a tank—one of the drawbacks of ordinary injection systems. By injecting the manure, you also reduce the risk of runoff and manure odors.

Edible Plants and Manure

Timing and caution are important when applying manure to root crops, such as onions, parsnips, and carrots. | Photo credit:


Timing and caution are important when applying manure to root crops, such as onions, parsnips, and carrots. | Photo credit: PDPhotos

You need to exercise caution when applying manure to soil intended for edible plants. Never apply manure to the soil when the plants are actively growing; this should be done before planting. Don't apply manure fertilizer within two months before harvest. After harvesting, wash all produce thoroughly before eating, especially root crops such as carrots, radishes, parsnips, beets, and onions. Don't use soaps unless specifically formulated for produce. Any roots that appear rotten should be discarded.

You should consider manure more as a soil conditioner than as a plant fertilizer for edible plants. Manure adds organic matter, which is important for plant growth. However, most animal manures have low nutrient levels, and it takes a large quantity to produce good growth.

And just in case you were wondering, according to soil scientist Carl Rosen, one 5-gallon bucket holds about 25 pounds of fresh manure or compost.



Mason, Sandra, Unit Educator, Horticulture & Environment, University of Illinois Extension, Homeowners Column, "Using Manure in the Garden", (, May 13, 2000. Today's Homeowner, Essential Home Tips - 500 Solutions for Problems Around Your Home, Creative Publishing International, Minnetonka, MN, 1998.
Rosen, Carl, University of Minnesota Extension Soil Scientist, University of Minnesota's Yard & Garden Line News, Volume 1 Number 4," Using Manure in the Home Garden", (, June 1, 1999.
University of Illinois, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, This Island website, "Apply Manure Wisely," (