Oh, Poop!

3 dog poop 2And every Saturday we work in the yard
Pick up the dog doo
Hope that it’s hard (woof woof)”

~ Joe Walsh, Ordinary Average Guy

A small pond forms where the creek backs up behind a small weir, and the adjacent park is a favorite with the geese. As I walk through with my young dog, the geese watch closely but usually let us pass unremarked. Rosie, the puppy, is very interested, though, in both the geese and the goose poop that litters the sidewalks. I try to keep us moving and not let her get too distracted or drawn to the poop. (I often wonder if we shouldn’t harvest the geese for shelters or food banks.)

As a result of having a dog once more, I’ve had to resurrect poop patrol duties and scan the yard every day or so for those little(?) gifts she leaves for us. Her buddy from a few doors down also comes over frequently to play. He’s much bigger — a German Shepherd — and possibly leaves a few, as well.

I’m somewhat accustomed to dealing with poop, although sometimes it can be a little messy. I started my career as a sanitary engineer working on sewage treatment plants along the Alaska pipeline, so I understand how natural poop is. Benjamin Franklin said, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Sanitary engineers (and parents) know that statement to be incomplete. Poop is natural – “shit happens” is more than just a cultural idiom.

But like weeds, poop can be a problem in the wrong places. Lawns, sidewalks, trails, carpets are all the wrong places for poop. (I’m sure you can come up with a more extensive list.) So, where should the poop go?

Humans collect their waste and (usually) bury it or treat it. Burial allows the natural decay processes using microorganisms and other biological means to break it down into components useful for other organisms. Sewage treatment mirrors natural processes, but in a more controlled manner. Sewage components are separated from water through filtration, chemical and biological processes, and the resultant sludge is digested. Usually sterile, the sludge does contain significant mineral and organic value, and can be successfully used as fertilizer and soil amendment.

Often farmers contract to receive this sludge on their fields. It’s good for the plants and the soil, and provides a place for the waste. Controls are necessary to assure that the bacteriological and metals content of the sludge is below acceptable levels. Feed lots and even small farmers compost their animal wastes for use in their fields. In addition, places with exotic animals like circuses and zoos frequently compost and sell their exotic poop for use in gardens.

Katie Forrest reports how the historic herds of wild animals created and maintained our grasslands: “… ruminants like goats, cattle, buffalo, sheep, and deer, whose stomachs have the ability to ferment plants through special microbial actions. The result: a highly potent manure that’s incredibly valuable as a fertilizer. When paired with the natural soil aeration provided by their hooves, these animals could stimulate the biological elements of healthy grass and soil in ways no man-made tool ever has.”

Humans have interrupted that process, reducing the herds and limiting their range, over-farming or over-grazing the soils and generally screwing up what were very productive grasslands. The idea of recreating this as something called regenerative agriculture has been proposed to address several problems that we have created: “By simulating the natural movement of animal herds through planned rotational grazing patterns and unleashing the power of ruminants to promote naturally thriving ecosystems, regenerative agriculture can heal previously damaged lands. Even more importantly, it can reverse previous destruction to our atmosphere. That’s because healthy grasses from holistically managed lands remove carbon dioxide from our air and put it back where it belongs: the soil.”

Of course, regenerative agriculture is a managed process, rotating the grazing animals on and off the land seasonally, allowing time for the land to recuperate. It’s not really a new idea, nomadic peoples and herders have followed these patterns for centuries. But with the land pressure we now have, it becomes necessary to control the process more closely.

Per Velasquez-Manoff , “Grasslands and grazing animals, (Jeff Creque, Rangeland Ecologist) pointed out, had evolved together. Unlike trees, grasses don’t shed their leaves at the end of the growing season; they depend on animals for defoilation and the recycling of nutrients. The manure and urine from grazing animals fuels healthy growth. If done right, Creque said, grazing could be restorative.”

And he added, “…how you graze makes all the difference.”

So, we want to return the carbon back into the soil. Possibilities include planting or restoring forests, adding biochar (charcoal) directly to soil, restoring wetlands and applying compost. Manure emits nitrogen (nitrous oxide) as it decays, whereas compost binds the nitrogen into complex molecules. In addition, compost minimizes emissions from the starter material and aids in removing carbon from the atmosphere.

I suppose the same thing could apply to the dog poop in my yard or the goose poop in the park. If we just let nature follow its course, the poop would decay over time, fertilizing and replenishing the soil, but releasing nitrogen. However, human pressure to use the park or the lawn interferes with that approach, and so we need to intervene to accommodate human use of that property. As a result, the city regularly chases the geese out of the parks, and dog walkers are required to pick up the poop. After all,

pick up after your dog
dont wanna see, smell or step on any logs
how hard can it be
to pick up your dog’s doodie?”

~ GloZell Green, Pick up After Your Dog

Additional information:

Katie Forrest, Making the Case for Regenerative Agriculture, April 19, 2018, Modern Farmer

Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Can Dirt Save the Earth?, 4/22/18, The New York Times Magazine

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