Manure Manager

Features Air quality Regulations
It makes no scents

Collaborating on a treatment to create an odorless soil amendment.

March 12, 2024  by Ronda Payne

Richmond’s Harold Steves with his tomato plants, which were added to his garden using the affected soil. Steves described “excellent results” in the tomatoes. PHOTO COURTESY OF HAROLD STEVES

One of the most challenging aspects of having livestock is finding the best ways to make use of the resulting manure, not to mention dealing with the potential complaints of neighbours about the smell of that by-product which can take years to break down. Octogenarian Harold Steves, who may be said to have dealt with his own share of manure as a Richmond, BC councillor for decades, has been trialing new technology to make manure odor-free and quickly available for planting on his heritage seed and cattle farm, thanks to a chance meeting with Chinese researcher Xinhua Song of Shanghai.

“He came over from China and he was arranging to go to the prairies,” Steves says, noting Song felt prairie farmers seemed the most likely to be willing to explore his blend of bacteria, yeast and other organisms which neutralize odor and accelerate manure decomposition but seems to retain nutrients as the manure dries to a powdery, soil-like amendment.

In a positive coincidence, Song’s son Marco was attending UBC and lived in Richmond. On a walk along a dike in Steveston (named after the Steves family), father and son saw Steves’ farm (known simply as that: Steves Farm) as well as the manure pile from the six Belted Galloway beef cattle that live on the farm most of their lives. Father and son decided to introduce themselves along with the potential of exploring the manure-converting technology. After the meeting, Song cancelled his trip to Saskatchewan.

“Basically, he said it’s a process he’s been using in China for many years,” says Steves. “He wanted to introduce it to North America, so I said ‘okay, let’s take a look at it’.”

It takes just a few weeks to transform the manure. A mere blink of an eye compared to traditional composting.

The process

Simplicity is key, but there is effort required (as is the case for anything in farming).

“When we cleaned the barn out, we dumped [the manure] on the concrete and sprinkled these materials, the bacteria and microorganisms, on top of it and then dumped more manure on top of that, let it sit for a couple of days and then turn it over.”

After the small amount of Song’s powder was initially sprinkled within the manure, the pair added water and covered it with plastic. Every four days another bucket of water was added and the pile was turned.

“It heats up to a tremendous temperature and that kills the weeds and destroys any bad things that might be in the manure,” says Steves. “Then basically, you put it out in the sun and dry it out. It ends up being powdery. You can pick it up in your hands. It’s granular. No odor. No sticky stuff.”

It takes about four weeks before the transformed manure is set out in the sun to achieve the desired end result – a dry, odoroless soil-like powder. He says it is labour intensive because water needs to be regularly applied and the manure needs to be turned, but feels those things can be managed with the right tools.

“There are ways,” says Steves. “Put it in a barrel and turn the barrel. That would do it too. There’s composting machines.”

On the first turn of the manure, just a few days after starting, Steves was surprised to already see a visible transformation.

“When you turn it over, it’s quite interesting because you can see the layers where it’s already changed,” he says. “All from this mixture of powder. Tiny granular material.”

Steves says Song put the resulting matter through a sieve before packaging it for future use.

Science to prove the benefits

“When he came last spring, all the garden had already been planted, but we added a bed of beans and a bed of tomatoes using this soil,” says Steves. “We had excellent results with both the beans and the tomatoes. We’re going to do a more scientific approach next spring.”

The tomatoes at Steves’ farm were planted closer together because they pair trusted the nutritional value of the amendment to fulfill the plants’ needs. The tomatoes continued to produce healthy fruit much longer than the plants that didn’t have the manure applied. But proof is needed.

The plan is to carve out a garden area to use the treated manure in spring when Song returns to Canada. But, the results are already promising. Data from an independent Canadian lab on the soil from those beds of beans and tomatoes found the amendment safe and having higher nutrient values than traditionally composted manure.

Steves plans to introduce the project to local post-secondary schools with agriculture and horticulture programs as a potential option for organic growing.

“It’s not good to be putting too fresh of manure on when you plant,” says Steves. “But with this, you put it right along when you plant. We don’t really put any organic fertilizer on the garden until we plant the plants.”

Plants are planted directly into the amendment.

“With one hand, you scoop a bit of earth out, put a bit of this soil in and put your plant in,” says Steves.

To support the research, samples were taken from the beds that will be planted in the spring to allow for before-and-after comparisons.

“He’s trying to prove the improvement and the resulting plant production,” he explains. “All I know is that it works. It’s logical, but we have to prove it.”

Song has told him the mixture kills bad bacteria, supports good bacteria and helps to activate some of the soil’s beneficial organisms like earthworms and probiotics leading to enhanced plant productivity when used.

Long-time farming and a desire to change the world

Steves may not fully understand what goes into Song’s formula, nor do the two understand each other’s language clearly (they spoke through Marco and using online translation tools), but Steves is very knowledgeable about farming and soil. He’s a fourth-generation farmer and has a background in agricultural, plant and animal sciences. He’s also considered one of the founders of BC’s agricultural land reserve which celebrated 50 years in 2023.

The Steveston farm is about two acres of class one soil and 15 acres of marsh pasture, surrounded by the dike trail and residential lots. The garden area is about four thousand square feet.

“I volunteered our garden where we grow seeds for sale and that’s why we have so many different varieties,” he says. “We’re not growing vegetables to eat.”

Steves’ six cattle go up to Back Valley Ranch a 320-acre Angus Hereford ranch near Cache Creek managed by his son Jerry to finish on alfalfa each year. The ranch complements Steves Farm with a variety of on-site-grown animal and produce products.

Marco says that while the two may have challenges communicating, their shared values paved the way.

“They both like agriculture,” says Marco, noting plans for 2025 will begin soon. “We must see this year’s result, then plan for next year.”

Song has been working on his research in China for more than 20 years. His technology has been used there for a number of years to convert manure to a nutritious resource quickly.

In terms of affordability, Steves says Song has told him it would be no more expensive than traditional fertilizers, but breaks down manure faster and is organic. They both hope this new technology can improve soil health across North America. They plant to try Song’s mixture on poultry manure this year.


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