Thursday, November 19, 2020

Burning Cow Chips in a Wood Cookstove

A century and a half ago, it was not uncommon for residents of America's Great Plains to use cow or buffalo dung as fuel in their cookstoves.  Trees were limited on the prairie, and often wood would have to be hauled from quite a distance to the kitchen range.  Thus, corncobs, "cats" of twisted grass, sunflower stalks, and animal dung became familiar fuels to our pioneer ancestors.

We don't have any shortage of wood on our farm, and we don't have a shortage of cow chips either.  For the sake of this blog and for the learning experience, I collected some cow chips late in the summer and burned them in the Margin Gem.  Below are several photographs of the cow chips during combustion along with some of my general observations about their performance.

Looking through the front "eye" over the firebox at the flames
from the cow chips.

Cow Chip Selection

Just as one might evaluate different pieces of firewood for their heating potential, one will want to be selective about which cow chips are chosen for the stove.  I don't want to be too indelicate, but...well...not all cow chips are created equal.  The best chips for fuel purposes will come from cows which have had plenty of dry roughage in their diets.  This creates the driest, most fibrous chip which will remain cohesive during handling and will provide the most heat potential too.  The buffalo chips on the prairie were such good fuel because the bison would have only had prairie grass and other fibrous vegetation to eat.  The more grain in the bovine diet, the poorer quality fuel the chips will be.

A closer view of the flames as the cow chips burn.

The quality of cow chips is also seasonal.  Pasture grass in the spring and early summer tends to be richer in moisture and other nutrients, causing cattle's bowels to be pretty loose.  The nature of cattle's output during this time makes finding anything that resembles a "chip" pretty difficult.  Later in the season, as the rains slack off and both the grass and the weather tend to be drier, what the bovine produces is more likely to be deposited in the "cow pie" form and is thus more easily collected.

Yet another shot of the combustion of cow dung in the wood cookstove.

Once the cow chip has been manufactured, the weather will be what determines when it can actually be used for fuel because sufficient time and sunshine must elapse in order for the dung to become firm enough to be handled and dry enough to burn.  Basically, when you pick up the chip, you don't want to see any evidence of moisture in it.  Because it was so much dryer than normal around here in late August and the very earliest part of September, that is when I collected the fuel that you see burning in the pictures.  

One must also keep in mind that a cow chip can be quite dry on the top, but very moist on the bottom side.  Therefore, to make the chips burnable, they may need to be inverted in good, warm sunshine for a while.

As the chips continue to burn, you can see that the edges are
beginning to form coals, just like wood does.

Directions for Use

To use cow chips for fuel, one must first start the fire using kindling wood or corncobs in the normal fashion.  Once the fire is burning well enough that it would be ready for split pieces of wood, one can add the dry cow chips.  The drafts should be open so that plenty of oxygen is available to aid in the ignition of the fuel.  Once the first chips are burning, add additional chips as frequently as you would if you were burning lightweight firewood such as poplar or cottonwood, leaving the drafts and stovepipe damper open enough to keep the flue gases exiting the house at a pretty good clip.  Trust me when I say that no one wants this kind of smoke escaping into the house.

As the cow chips burn, they put out a good, hot heat.  They also will form relatively short-lived coals that are similar to those of lightweight wood or corncobs, but they are coals nonetheless.

Additional Considerations

Despite the availability of cow chips, I'm going to stick with wood as my primary cooking fuel.  I find the smoke from burning cow chips has a disagreeable odor, and they are more susceptible to taking on moisture than wood, too.  Furthermore, it would take an awful lot of cow chips to create the same amount of heat that a pickup load of wood would yield.

That said, the most important takeaway here is that--unlike an electric or gas range which can only utilize one type of energy source--a wood cookstove has quite a range of fuel versatility.  

If you have any personal experience or historic stories about cooking and heating with cow chips as fuel, please share in the comments!  


  1. this was an interesting post-and I always wondered about the odor when burning with these chips. if this was the pioneer's main source for fuel-wow what allot of work to collect and dry-keep dry and then would need allot of them to keep warm and cook with

    1. Exactly, Kathy! We don't have any real concept of how hard they had to work!

    2. I've used both two-man and single crosscut saws. I don't think I have tried a buck saw, but I have done a lot of splitting. I would hazard a guess, collecting and properly storing cow or buffalo chips (even the huge quantity required by a typical family) required less work, "back in the day." It is not my purpose to trivialize the work for either fuel. I'm just comparing the two.

      I will say, however, you've outdone yourself this time, Jim! It would never have occurred to me to carry out this experiment. Very interesting results!

    3. Thanks, Brett! I think procuring fuel for the cookstoves "back in the day" was more work than what we are used to today no matter what the fuel was. Among the things I'm thankful for this Thanksgiving are chainsaws and wood splitters!