Why do farms smell

So I am back to answer another one of our 9th grade pen pal questions:

Why do farms smell?

Many of our pen pals asked this question or similar questions like:

How do you handle the bad smells?

Or not even a question at all: “I could never live on a farm because they smell bad.”

So why do farms smell different than your house, or school, or even your city? Good question!

Our noses and brains have a way of getting “use-to” smells. You probably don’t smell anything when you enter your home. But if you visit a friend’s home you might notice that their home smells different. They may use different laundry detergent, cook different smelling foods, or even have different pets. Farms are the same. Soil, animal feed, plants, etc all smell different than your home. One smell that is extremely different than your home is animal poop.

It is simple biology. What goes in, must come out. Our cows eat about 100 pounds of food a day. That means that they will produce about 100 pounds of poop, or as we call it, manure. Let us just say YOU don’t smell like roses all the time neither when it comes to this subject matter.

Is cow manure bad?

Cow manure has gotten a bad rap over the years. Images of “factory farms” leaking toxic poison into our rivers usually comes to mind. But that is usually far from the truth.

On our farm, cow and other animal manure is very valuable. As organic farmers we are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers (think Miracle Grow). Instead, we rely on the nutrient rich manure from our animals.

We don’t just throw the manure on our fields all willy-nilly neither. Instead, we know which fields need more or less nutrients and apply it appropriately. We, also look to the weather. If we are expecting to get 10 inches of rain overnight, we don’t spread manure. The manure would run off the field. That would do no benefit to our fields and only hurt the environment. We also have a rule of not spreading manure on the weekends. Our neighbors don’t enjoy grilling and smelling that.

Here is short video of Tim spreading nutrient manure.


Why do some farms smell worse than others?

Many reasons affect why one farm smells better than another. The more concentrated animals are in one area the more they will smell. Our cows smell their worst when they are all standing on the lot waiting to be milked (think guys locker room). When they are all spread out on a pasture, you typically don’t smell anything. Another thing that affects smell is the type of food the animal’s eat. Every farm will differ depending on what they feed their animals. Yet another difference is how farms store their manure. On our farm we don’t have any place to store more than a few days worth of manure before it must be spread on the fields. As manure sits in storage bacteria and fungi start to break it down which makes it smell different. Depending on the way the manure is stored that difference can equal less or more smelliness.

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Cows up on cow yard, where they smell their worst. This is from a 100+ degree day and they are being sprinkled to stay cool before milking. 

Organic cows on pasture, why do farms smell

The cows on pasture, where they smell their best. 

What do farmers do to control the manure smell?

On our farm we keep things as tidy as possible to keep our place from being overly smelly and also to limit the places where insects, such as flies, can reproduce. Having the cows out on pasture in the summer is also a great way to control smells. When a cow urinates or poops in the pasture, it is immediately in contact with plants and soil and well dispersed in a wide open area. This prevents smells from accumulating. In buildings that cattle live in, such as our freestall barn where the cows sleep in the winter, lots of ventilation is essential to making sure their home isn’t a smelly one. Cows don’t mind being cool, unlike us, so their barn is open to the outside and the roof has an opening at the top for air to circulate out of. The cows’ bedding that they have used (pooped on) can be some smelly stuff so we compost it before spreading.

So there you have it. That is quite the answer to “Why do farms smell?”. The next time you visit our farm please don’t plug your nose, just enjoy those fresh organic smells.

~Emily (with some help from Tim)