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Dung talk August 1st, 2021 by

Nowhere in the world do take people dung more seriously than in South Asia. For ages cow dung has been a valuable resource. In the countryside people collect fresh dung by hand, shape it into small balls and press it against the walls of houses to allow it to dry. Sometimes the dung balls are skewered onto one-meter long sticks. The dried dung is used as fuel to cook meals. In dryland areas where fuelwood is scarce, these dung sticks are especially important.

Dung is also used as fertilizer, and in India people prepare it in various ways. Sometimes they mix the dung with cow urine, chickpea flour, molasses and water and let it ferment for about a week to allow the microorganisms to multiply. Farmers use the solid or liquid preparations as a seed coating, to keep pests away and to help the seed to grow. Applied to crops as a fertilizer, the dung preparations also help to revive the soil. These and other traditional practices add organic matter to the soil while supporting a cover of vegetation year-round. This is increasingly seen as a way to achieve food security and cool our planet. The Community-Based Natural Farming Programme in Andhra Pradesh, India, has embraced these technologies and is promoting them to millions of smallholder farmers, setting an example to the world.

However, when sharing ideas between countries, sometimes deeply held practices need to be re-examined. As I mentioned in my previous blog it is important to understand the scientific principles underpinning technologies, so that farmers can then adapt these to their own context.

For example, a few years ago one of our Indian partners was developing a video on good microbes, and I insisted that he asked local experts if other dung could be used, not just from cows. A few weeks later he reported back that everyone had agreed, only cow dung should be used. Sheep or goat dung would be no good.

This set me thinking a lot. While we were still making that video, I was able to fix a meeting with Camilla Toulmin, former Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. While her focus had been on policy research about agriculture, land, climate and livelihoods in dryland regions of Africa, I knew that her PhD research on natural resource management in Mali had touched on the use of manure. After an hour on skype, we had shared a lot of information, but were still unsure if sheep dung was as good a source of beneficial microbes as cow dung.

As I mulled over my conversation with Camilla, I kept thinking back to one time in a village in northern Ghana when we had screened a video about using animal manure in farming. A woman in the audience had asked, “Why do you only show cow manure? Cows belong to men! As we women, do not have cows, but only sheep and goats, can we not do anything with this dung to fertilize our land?”

That was a few years ago. Now that I have a few sheep of my own, and can try out things myself, I have some new insights. Microbes need food and water to grow. In dryland areas, or when animals graze on dry pasture, their droppings dry out pretty fast. The good micro-organisms in the dung may start to die. On lush vegetation, the droppings of my sheep are much larger than the typical small balls one imagines when thinking of sheep droppings. When I prepare my solution of good microbes I collect the dung when it is still fresh.

Indian farmers and experts may be right about cow dung being the most suitable resource in the drylands. Sheep droppings may just dry out too fast to keep the good microbes alive. But in the rainy season or in more humid countries, sheep dung may have lots of beneficial micro-organisms. And for women in northern Ghana, who don’t have cow dung, sheep and goat droppings may still add much needed nutrients to their soil. As soil microbiologist Walter Jehne said: “We should promote the principles and not be dogmatic about it. If you only have reindeer, you may as well make organic manure from their dung, and do not need cow dung.”

Communicating technologies to farmers cross-culturally requires that we move beyond time-honoured recipes. We need to understand the underlying principles and explain them as well as we can. There is gold in more than one type of dung.

Related blogs

Principles matter

Trying it yourself

Reviving soils

Effective micro-organisms

Friendly germs

Earthworms from India to Bolivia

A revolution for our soil

Related videos

Good microbes for plants and soil

Organic biofertilizer in liquid and solid form

Coir pith

Mulch for a better soil and crop

Vermiwash: an organic tonic for crops

Making a vermicompost bed

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

One thought on “Dung talk

  1. True, most of us are often biased when we only talk of Cow dung-most of the time. In India, cow dung is hugely talked about often at th expense of sheep, goats & other animals. I used to see in my village during childhood, the farmers including my father would pay migratory sheep herders for keeping the herd in harvested farm land for 1-3 nights or more so that their droppings would fertilize soil. Rightly a case has been made here for sheep & goat dung as also the other animals, which could also be true of pig, poultry and many more animal species.I appreciate your conclusion- we need to understand the underlying principles as well as we can, since dung is dung be it any animal !

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