In Praise of Poop: Rediscovering the Wonders of Cow Manure

cow manureCall me crazy, call me crude, but I have to say that there is nothing quite like the smell of cow manure.

That scent is so rich, so savory, so earthy, so pungently sweet that just one whiff seems to bury you in an olfactory pleasure dome. And if you keep basking in the aroma, you may well feel driven to grab a pitchfork, plop a straw hat on your head, stick a blade of grass in your mouth, and head on out to the fields. This is especially true on those oh-so-humid mornings in the peak of summer, when the air is so moist and dense that you almost have to put on scuba gear. But any old day is a great day for cow poop.

I confess that I am no connoisseur of creaturely caca, but I would bet that none can compare with the quality of a cow’s. Horse manure comes close, but it pushes pungency at the expense of sweetness, plus it is not very good for fertilizer. The feces of fowls is not even in the same league; it is far too acrid, not to mention slimy and sticky and all around offensive. Elephant excrement is similarly versatile (for example, it makes a great alternative source for paper), yet so far it lacks the time-tested dependability and widespread availability of cow dung; pachyderm poo is thus still an exotic delicacy rather than a common staple. (I cannot speak to its odoriferous character, alas.) And nobody would sing paeans to dog and cat poop. Look at how tenderly people carry those telltale plastic bags when walking their dogs–usually with one arm extended as the dog pulls the leash and the other arm, hand, and pinching fingers extended as far away as possible with the bag bobbing in the air. When it comes to the felines, we have managed to train them to go potty in specified places, cover it with “fresh scent” granules, and graciously shake off anything sticking to their paws. I suppose “domestication,” in part, means proper toilet training…or “house training,” as it is called. And as for “humanure”…I am not even going there.

No, the cow has no competitors when it comes to marvelous manure. And these marvels are manifold. Everyone, even the deprived city dweller, knows that cow dung makes superb fertilizer. But it is also great for much, much more:

  • fuel for cooking food and heating;
  • generating electricity (from the methane);
  • making mud bricks for houses;
  • lining floors and walls, in particular since it makes for good and cheap thermal insulation;
  • insect repellent.

Even better, working around and with cow dung may help reduce chances of lung cancer. Second-hand smoke can kill, but this scent can possibly save!

Is it any wonder that Hindus hold the cow sacred, that they revere and protect it as Go-Mata or “Mother Cow”? Just the manure alone makes a cow worthy of worship, whether or not you believe you were actually born from one.

After all, think about the many things that cow pies do in the natural cycle. They are part of nature’s beautiful self-sustaining system, part of the circle of life and death and rebirth (from death) that spins in every habitat, in every clime, in every single living being. What goes in must come out, and when it comes out it is all set to help things grow and then go right back in again! Economical? Renewable? Sustainable? You bet!

Shockingly enough, though, humans have shown little appreciation for the scent (or sight or feel or even thought) of cow manure. We make all kinds of “natural” air fresheners (all of them artificial, of course) supposedly capturing and conveying to our homes and various other goods the scent of a mountain breeze, a berry patch, a spring meadow, a fresh peach…. We have ample options for nature-mimicking potpourri, yet we have not one product promising the perpetual scent of pure poo-pourri!

This lack of love for cow dung is an outright tragedy of epic proportions. It only testifies to how far we have separated ourselves from the finer things in nature. Locked in hermetically sealed and climate-controlled homes, offices, cars, and other sensory deprivation chambers, we flee the realities of nature–and then artificially try to make those sterile environments more “natural”! It makes about as much sense as “enriched” white bread; why not just leave the original, natural nutrients in the grain in the first place?

Vastly more tragic, though, is the fact that manure (like so many things in nature) has become just another sub-type of “waste,” of “trash” that needs to be collected, shipped away, and so removed from our lives. Instead of benefiting from the renewable richness of animal dung, wash our hands of it, we throw away a potential biofuel source, we waste another natural resource.

In fields across the planet, then, cow pies sit ready for our cultivation, for our appreciation, for our affection. From mountaintop to valley floor, the gift of mother cow is there waiting to be received…or, if not, then mellowing out and helping to give birth to new life. The scent of cow dung wafts intoxicatingly in so many places, just one of the many divine scents that help to particularize a place in nature and that help make nature what it is.

Summer is almost here. I look forward to seeing you in the field. Just remember to bring your boots.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Uncle B

    One sure sign of spring in my neighborhood is the smell of cow manure being spread on the farms down the lake from us. It may not be heaven sent but is a heavenly scent after a long cold winter! A fellow Ontarian ferments the stuff, and runs his car on the methane it makes. A guy in the ‘States makes flower pots and methane both from it and has a residue left he can beneficially spread on his fields. Cheap oil was nice, but it stole a lot of good things from us, including thrift, self-reliance, and independence. Almost glad to see it go, and times get back to normal!

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    Thank you for this great comment, Uncle B. I agree with you 100%: we would do well to look back to some of the older ways of “getting by” and see how sustainable
    self-reliance can be. Although I am a vegan, I have been tempted to get a cow just for the manure!

  3. Swan

    Justin, I absolutely 110% agree with you. I’ve always really favored the smell of cow manure. There is something rich and earthy about it. Its good. Its produce from a completely vegetarian diet to boot so it is extremely rich.

    I was going to mention the thing about India but I see you’ve done your homework. You are a dyed in the wool lover of cow poop as I am!

    This is a very well written article on a beautiful and one of the most important topics!

    I give it 5.5 cowpies out of 5

  4. emily

    so glad to hear there are others out there that are comforted or even admit to loving the smell of cow manure! growing up in vermont, i grew up with dairy farms every five miles. my out-of-state friends think i’m crazy, but i think city/suburb smells are much, much worse!

    also, using manure to make electricity with a methane digester is an incredible renewable energy technology!!

  5. Alpha

    Okay, I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that cow manure is a pleasant smell! I always enjoyed VT mornings when you could smell the cow pastures nearby.

  6. Chynna

    You should turn my poop into fuel too. It would be a lot better than pumping it into the ocean causing a poopy slush. I think our fishy friends would be a lot happier too. The next thing on the agenda should be to turn Dump material into a money-making resource that isn’t as harmful to the environment. Then after that of course there’s the whole roadside garbage thing. I was thinking along the lines of “roadside garbage”. Big garbage bins kind of like a huge basket ball net for garbage. These would be placed at stop signs. WoooohOOOO earth <33

  7. Wanda

    I couldn`t beleive I was reading this ! Every since I was a little girl I have loved the smell of cow manure .There I have said it and feel comfortable about saying it now! (LOL) So glad there are others out there . It reminded me of being at my grandparents everytime I got a good whiff of cow dung in paastures .

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