To accompany his large garden in near Warrensburg, Charlie Sibthorp has 23 egg-laying hens.

“The chickens love about anything from the garden,” he said.

And the garden loves them back.

Sibthorp uses the manure generated from the small flock of chickens to fertilize the 65-by-100-foot garden.

But 23 chickens is not enough. To supply the amount of manure he needs for his large garden, Sibthorp joined Manure Share through the University of Illinois Extension.

The Illinois Manure Share is a free website joining livestock owners, gardeners and landscapers. The goal of the exchange program is to introduce those who have an abundance of livestock manure with those in need.

According to Ellen Phillips, soil scientist with the Extension office, “the program is connecting people who have excellent soil, especially organic soil, with those who need it.”

Manure Share was developed in Chicago to relieve horse owners of the amount of feces produced by the large animals.

“There are more horses in Chicago than the rest of the state,” Phillips said. “The majority of the stable manure was going into the landfill.”

Although the exchange program has proven to be good for gardeners and livestock owners, the general population benefits as well by removing chemicals from the water supply.

“When you have huge amounts of nitrogen, that can start to mess with things,” said Anne Watts-Heldt, Richland Community College student worker and owner a 60-by-45-foot garden in Bethany. “The water can affect others in the area.”

Sibthorp has used chemicals in the past, “but I'd rather have the manure,” he said. “I like to garden organically if I can.”

Along with farmer listings, the Illinois Manure Share website posts composting rules, links and blogs from those in the farming community.

And communication is key to a successful exchange.

“Talk to the people who are giving it to you,” Watts-Heldt said. “Chances are they have a garden of their own and using some of these same practices.”

Sibthorp learned after his first exchange one of the first conversations should be about transportation.

“I went over to a guy who had horses, and I took bushel baskets,” he said. “I couldn't find anything else.”

One of the best ways to transport is in the bed of a truck. “It saves on prices, and it keeps it from being gross,” Watts-Heldt said.

If the manure has already been composted, she also suggests possibly transporting it in plastic bags or old grain sacks. “Once it's composted, its not stinky; it doesn't attract flies.”

Fresh manure is not recommend for growing gardens.

“You can't use it fresh, or it just kills everything,” Sibthorp said. “The stuff I have in the garden has set for a year.”

Composted soil has been decomposing from six months to a year.

“Well-composted manure is basically the richest kind of soil you can get,” Watts-Heldt said.

Fresh manure can be distributed on gardens at the end of the gardening season. By the following spring, it will have been broken down by the protozoa in the soil to be useful. But tilling is beneficial for the soil.

Working the manure with other natural material can produce a rich soil. Farmers turn the mixture every two to three weeks, creating a hot compost.

“It will steam,” Watts-Heldt said. “The enzymes, the bacteria and the bugs, everything all work together to break down, and that decomposition is what causes heat.”

This method kills the weed seeds, bad enzymes and bacteria.

“Hot compost is really the safest way to go if you want to use it quickly,” Watts-Heldt said. “But it does require a lot of turning.”

Composting turns the manure and other raw materials into rich and earthy dirt within a few months. “It's not poop anymore,” Watts-Heldt said. “It's more like soil.”

​dbeckett@herald-review.com/(217) 421-6983

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