Virgil, the Roman poet who lived from 70 to 19 B.C., wrote the following lines about renewing the soil: “Yet sprinkle sordid ashes all around, and load with fattening dung thy fallow ground.”
Even though the idea of using manure to make soil more fertile is an ancient concept, early American farmers, reveling in the rich and abundant virgin land, were slow to take advantage of it. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, American agriculturalists began emphasizing the benefits of putting manure on fields to increase yields.
Eastern farmers, whose fields were small and had already been run down by over-cropping, heeded the advice and hauled manure in carts and wagons, spreading it by hand. But hand-spreading was slow, hard work and the results weren’t very satisfactory since the manure tended to be thrown out in large chunks instead of being pulverized and evenly distributed.
Farmers slow to accept early spreaders
Some feeble attempts were made from 1850 to 1875 to perfect a manure spreader, but nothing much came of them. Then, J.S. Kemp of Magog, Quebec, Canada, developed a practical machine that was patented in the U.S. on May 1, 1877. A year later, the Kemp & Burpee Mfg. Co. was formed in Syracuse, N.Y., to build the new spreader, but the machines, being totally new to the American farmer, were slow to be accepted, especially west of the Mississippi River.
In the vast wheat fields of the plains, where the early settlers believed the deep, rich soil could never be depleted, manure spreader salesmen grumbled, “Those farmers out there don’t know what manure is for!” However, after years of growing the same crop without putting anything back into the soil, farmers found that even this land began to return smaller and smaller yields.
Because it was impossible to spread manure on this large acreage by hand, due to time constraints and the huge amount of labor required, the wheat grower looked for a way to conserve his manure supply and spread it economically.
Improvements and research begin to impact the market
Meanwhile, improvements had been made to the Kemp spreader. The machine began to be sold in larger and larger numbers as farmers everywhere saw the advantages of the machine’s thorough pulverization and even spreading of manure.
In a 1917 book on farming by Dr. W.E. Taylor, director of soil culture for Deere & Co., Taylor claimed the value of cattle manure per ton to be $2.02, hog manure, $3.29 and chicken droppings, $7.07. Taylor went on to compare the cost of spreading for three farmers. The first man hauls his manure to the field on a wagon, dumps it in piles and hand-spreads it later, just before plowing; cost: 44 cents per load. The second farmer hauls his to the field the same way, but spreads it by hand from the wagon; cost: 40 cents per load. The third farmer uses a spreader, which costs him only 20 cents per load.
These costs seem mighty low to us until we look at the figures for the yields. Corn raised on ground where manure had been hand-spread made 50 bushels per acre, while 62 bushels per acre was raised on ground where a spreader had been used. Only 40 bushels per acre came from ground where no manure was applied. At the time, corn was bringing 40 cents per bushel, so even a savings of 20 cents per load of manure was significant.
Also, keep in mind that this was in the days before chemical fertilizers were readily available, although lime, wood ashes and marl (a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate found in natural deposits) were used. Farm-mixed fertilizers could be made, but the process was messy, time consuming and dangerous (see below), so it’s little wonder that farmers didn’t use much fertilizer, other than manure, if it took all this trouble to make the stuff. FC
Sam Moore is a longtime Farm Collector columnist. This column originally appeared in the April 2005 issue.
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Don’t Try this at Home!
“Homegrown” fertilizer was a difficult, dangerous brew to produce
The following recipe for mixing your own fertilizer, using ground animal bones, appeared in an 1877 issue of the Farm Journal:
“Select a good wooden barn floor or make a box of thick plank, laid tight. On this first throw the bones. If not ground very fine, it would be well to sift them, and place only the coarser part on this floor, putting the finer portion aside for mixing in afterward. By this means, the coarse bone will come in contact with the strong acid first, and be more effectually acted upon by it, while the finer parts can then be added to dry up.
“Water, equal to about one-fourth the weight of the bone, is first to be poured upon it, well stirred in with a spade or hoe, and left for two or three days to heat and ferment; if convenient, it would be well to use the water boiling hot.
“After the bones have fermented, add the oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid), mixing well with a wooden spade or board; the mass effervesces or boils; stir thoroughly twice a day for two days, so as to turn the whole mass over; let it stand for two or three days to dry; add the fine bone and mix it in well. If not dry, use some absorbing substance, as sawdust, dry peat or muck, or dry earth, in small quantities, and mix well.
“Do not use, for this purpose, lime, ashes or marl, as they would destroy the super-phosphate and spoil the whole work.
“Now, when your super-phosphate has become thoroughly dry, the addition of sulphate of magnesia, muriate of potash, nitrate of soda, land plaster (gypsum) or other elements which are to compose your complete fertilizer may be made. Stir them in thoroughly, one at a time, reserving the land plaster to be worked in the last thing.”