Making Money on Manure

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A year ago, Laura Voshchenko, manager of the 25- to 35-horse Tandem Park Riding Center in Conifer, Colo., was paying $450 a month to have manure carted away. Now she charges $40 a truckload for the compost she makes from that manure. “It’s wild,” she says. “You can take this stuff that nobody wants and turn it into something of value.”

Composting is a relatively new idea for most horse farms, but one that makes a great deal of sense. Composting speeds up the natural decay process, transforming manure into a nearly odorless, nutrient-rich, time-release fertilizer. The process has several side benefits: it kills weed seeds, fly larvae, and a range of pathogens, reducing the farm’s populations of several insect, germ, and plant pests. It kills the heavy manure odor. From an environmental standpoint, it can help reduce leaching of minerals into water sources.

And is a far better fertilizer than raw manure. The nitrogen and other nutrients in manure leach out quickly and foul wetlands and water sources. Composting, though, stabilizes the nutrients so that they are released more slowly. “Managed properly, composting will greatly reduce expenses, and producing a quality compost can generate a revenue source—typically, $10-$12 per cubic yard,” says Peter Moon of Price-Moon Enterprises, a composting consultant. Among the eager customers are tree nurseries, gardeners and farmers (compost is the standard fertilizer for organic farmers).

There’s another long-term consideration: politics. “The horse industry has so far escaped the scrutiny of the green movement,” says Shannon Morris, agricultural extension agent at North Carolina State University and a leader of the Regional Equine Information Network System (REINS). “But one of these days they will discover that there are piles of manure close to water sources all over the country. Then there will be hell to pay. It would behoove horse owners to think about how they will deal with this now. They have to find some environmentally friendly way to dispose of this manure.”

Compost Shed Advantages

Of all composting methods, using a shed provides the greatest protection against the elements. At the same time, a shed reduces the impact of your composting manure on the surrounding environment, from the standpoint of both appearance and ecology.

A typical composting shed consists of a concrete pad and wood walls, bins, and roof (or tarp, if financial need dictates). It can be any size, but should have at least three bins, so that you can simultaneously fill one, cook the second, and empty the finished compost from the third. It can also include a storage area (see diagram).

The key to composting is temperature control. The pile must stay between 130 and 150 degrees for at least three days to kill the various pests in manure. Temperatures above 150 degrees slow down the process; after the initial cooking, the temperature can then be lowered to 110 to 120 degrees to maximize the microbial action. It takes 21 to 30 days for the primary composting to occur, and an additional month or two for the compost to cure.

To provide the oxygen that fuels the microbes, it’s necessary to turn or aerate the pile. Turning can be accomplished by manual labor (on a small farm) or with a tractor. Aerating is often done via perforated pipes, sometimes driven by a blower. This decision about how to supply oxygen is critical: it affects both initial cost and ongoing labor needs.

Field Experience

In Morganton, N.C., Billy Parton of Billy Parton’s Training Center and Roy Blanton of the Risin’ B Ranch were among the first to use composting sheds. In 1995 and 1996, NC State helped finance demonstration sites on their farms. Both use bucket loaders to turn their bins.

Parton is more than satisfied with the results. “It makes the stuff pretty darn sellable,” he says. “And it makes it much more manageable, that’s what I like about it. It reduces the mud. We took some of the property where we used to dump manure, and we got the use of the land back—we use it for paddocks.”

He acknowledges it’s not cheap, at least for a spread that houses 40-plus horses year-round, and up to 60 during breeding season. “For our operation, it’s pretty expensive to build it. Cost us about $16,000. I don’t think you make all your money back, but I’ve never put a pencil on it.

“The other benefits make it worth­while—just the aesthetics of it make composting worth it. Aesthetics are very important for any horse operation.

“If we ever moved, it’d be one of the first things I’d consider building.”

Blanton is not sold on his composting shed. He sells about 2/3 of his product at $20 a pickup load, and uses the rest on his ranch. Since he used to sell raw manure for $15 a load, composting hasn’t been a financial plus. “The biggest problem I have with it is time,” he says. Blanton manages 25 to 35 horses on his farm, and compost management and sales soak up about 16 hours each month.

Most horse-farm composters, though, praise the process. Iris Sigmon, owner of the 7777 Farm in Hickory, N.C., keeps eight trail horses, brood mares and foals on 17 acres. “We have a shed with a concrete floor and four bins,” she says. “We use a small tractor with front-end loader to transfer the compost from one bin to the other. We monitor the temperatures and when it’s a stable product, we sell it, for $5 a front-end loader scoop, about $40 to $45 for a truckload. We call it black gold.”

Sigmon sees other benefits, too. “It helps us keep the farm looking nice, and we’re not trying to dispose of waste in bad weather times. It’s a convenience. We handle the manure less now than when we had it hauled away.”

Monitoring the compost is easy. “The process needs attention, but it’s not demanding,” she says. “We check the temperatures daily, every time we dump manure in a bin. We can get the temperature up to 160 degrees in no time. When the temperature breaks and starts to come down, you know it’s ready to turn.”

Sigmon encourages other barn owners to adopt composting if they haven’t already. “It’s one of those things I’d encourage people to do before it becomes a liability and the government steps in,” she says. “And this is just one more step in giving your farm that feel of being a really nice place.”

Automated Composting

A composting operation can also tap into the efficiencies of automation. For instance, an aerated static pile (ASP) composting shed controls the cooking process so that no turning is necessary. This greatly reduces the labor involved. Peter Moon has developed an automated system that can pay for itself in three to six months, Moon says. It costs $2,500 or so for equipment plus training manuals and as much consulting time with Moon as needed. Material costs for a small shed run about $3,000, according to Moon.

Voshchenko, manager of Colorado’s Tandem Park, raves about her Price-Moon system. “My experience has been great,” she says. “It’s a trip. It works incredibly well. It only takes a few days to get the temperatures right. But I didn’t monitor it as well as I should have—I let the temperature get up to 190 degrees. You have to pay attention and monitor daily, at least for the first few batches. We started in November; it was dry and cold—and I still got to 190 degrees.

“Having someone like Peter walking you through the process is great,” she adds. “I would never have figured this out myself. I never tried composting before. Composting is more complicated than it seems. But once you go out and do it, it becomes pretty simple.

“It’s a great solution. Economically, it’s a benefit. But ecologically, it creates topsoil, which is valuable here at 8,400 feet in the mountains. And even if you give it away, you come out ahead.”

For More Information

Simply typing “composting horse manure” into an Internet search engine turns up vast fields of information. Among the best for composting, composting sheds and building plans are the following sites.

Price-Moon Enterprises — www.o2compost.com; tel: (800) 611-3718

Washington State University Cooperative Extension, Whatcom County — www.whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/horsecompost.htm

North Carolina State agricultural extension service — burke.ces.state.nc.us/pubs/horse/compost.shtml; tel: (828) 439-4460. Available at this site is an excellent schematic of a composter.

Horses for Clean Water — www.horsesforcleanwater.com

Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries, British Columbia — www.agf.gov.bc.ca/resmgmt/fppa/pubs/environ/horse/horse08.htm

McGill University/Canadian Organic Growers — eap.mcgill.ca/MagRack/COG/COGHandbook/COGHandbook_1_4.htm

University of Minnesota Extension Service — www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/naturalresources/components/7540_04.html