Making the Most of Manure

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A healthy 1,000-pound horse produces 45 to 50 pounds of manure a day. In a year, that means a small operation of a dozen horses has to move and dispose of 105 tons of waste. Considered another way, all that scat amounts to 149 cubic yards of material; a total of 300 yards when you throw in bedding. A big operation, one with 250 horses, has to deal with 2,190 tons of manure annually. When combined with discarded bedding, that takes up more than 6,000 cubic yards of space.

Regardless of the number of horses, waste management is a chore that every farm has to tackle on a daily basis. When approached correctly, this chore can be simplified, protecting the health of horses, humans and the environment and even lead to improved relationships with neighbors and town officials.

There are three generally accepted ways of dealing with manure and picking one will depend on your operation’s size and the total land available for use. Two of them—keeping it on site to be spread on pasture land and removing manure from the farm—are the more obvious choices. The third, composting the manure, is an alternative that makes good sense for some small operations located in densely populated areas and is also making an impact among many large horse farms and ranches. Each has advantages and disadvantages related to costs, labor, the health of livestock as well as humans and the environment, but composting seems to be an up-and-coming practice that farms of all sizes are beginning to consider.

Storing It

Regardless of the option a horse operation chooses, in storing manure, it’s vital to prevent rainwater runoff from carrying excess nutrients and bacteria into neighboring lakes, ponds or streams and from leaching into groundwater. Local and federal regulatory authorities generally have jurisdiction over projects that might have such impacts and most will require a sealed container or a properly built temporary storage shed for manure use.

Before building a manure-storage facility, the local health department, Cooperative Extension office or zoning board should be contacted to determine the best location for such a structure. There are few things worse than having a local representative of the Department of Agriculture pay a visit and discover that the new manure shed violates U.S. wetland protection laws.

According to the “Horse Industry Handbook” published by the American Horse Council, manure storage sheds should have floors of either cement or dense, compacted soil and ought to be located on relatively flat land that does not have an impact on any neighboring drainage areas. They should be located at least 50 feet from waterways and 100 feet from drinking wells. The sides should be either cement or tightly constructed wood panels and the floor of the shed should slope slightly to the back, with a crown at the entrance to prevent rain from finding its way inside and runoff from escaping. The shed should either have a roof or be covered with a heavy tarp to keep out precipitation. A drain and gutter should be located at the base of the rear wall to collect runoff from within.

Manure runoff typically contains fecal coliform bacteria, nitrates, phosphates and salts among other pollutants. When these ingredients enter bodies of water in high concentrations they can lead to the spread of viruses, oxygen depletion, an overpopulation of algae and eventually will kill fish, typically in large numbers. The salts in manure collect in soil, help stunt plant growth and are detrimental to the soil’s general health.

Spread it Thin and Often

Dairy farms typically store manure on the farm and use it on-site by spreading it on corn, alfalfa or hay as fertilizer. While it makes sense in these operations, using horse manure on pasture land in its raw form is typically not recommended by waste management experts because it can lead to hoof rot and undesirable plants sprouting in pastures caused by the large concentrations of undigested weed seed found in manure.

In spite of spreading’s shortcomings, it is still the most cost-effective manner of waste management for some operations where land is abundant and distances to landfills or commercial waste stations are great. In this case, following some simple rules will help avoid the possibility of spreading disease and irritating any neighbors.

  • Spread often to avoid stockpiling, which can lead to the spread of disease.
  • Spread only when soil conditions will absorb waste (avoid frozen or extremely wet ground).
  • Spread thinly so manure dries quickly, killing fly eggs and maggots.
  • Cover distributed waste periodically with lime to cut down on odors.
  • Avoid spreading manure on pasture during the grazing season.

Spreading composted manure, however, virtually eliminates the possibility of spreading disease and unwanted weeds because the composting process kills the seeds and halts insect activity. It also helps reduce odors drifting to neighboring property and is a great soil amendment, improving soil health and moisture maintenance.

Hauling Easy but Can be Costly

The least labor-intensive option, of course, is to have the manure and waste bedding removed from the farm. While simple for farm managers, it gets expensive. This typically involves paying a third party to come and haul the waste away and paying a tipping fee to have the manure deposited at a municipal or private waste transfer station. Another option, one that is becoming more common, would be to have the waste removed by a commercial composter or trucking the waste to a commercial operation yourself. The costs involved can also be quite high, but some horse farms are finding that as compost becomes more valuable to tree farms, landscape contractors, golf courses and other users, more composters are beginning to haul raw horse waste away for free.

Russell Wheeler, a commercial composter and landscaper in Northfield, Conn., has been in business for 15 years and says that in the last four, horse farms have been one of his biggest growth areas. His trucks collect manure from as far away as Maine and, depending on the size and location of the farm, he’ll pick it up at no charge. He has charged for everything from trucking costs to setting up composting systems at farms, but has yet to charge a tipping fee for accepting horse waste at his location.

If a horse operation can find a market—possibly a nearby vegetable farm or soil supply company that composts—for its manure and arrange to have it removed for no cost on a regular basis, the option becomes the most cost-effective waste management practice. Especially when you consider annual collection fees for a 20-stall operation can range from $2,000 to more than $8,000. But that all depends on the amount of manure produced on the farm, the amount needed by the vegetable grower or commercial composter and the proximity of the supplier to the consumer. When the right balance is reached, the effort can save a lot of money.

To make the prospect of free hauling more cost-effective and, therefore, more desirable to the composter, some small horse operations in densely populated areas have banded together to collect manure at a central point to cut trucking costs. According to Wheeler, however, the trick is getting one of the farms to agree to host the collection site. While it may be difficult to look at horse manure as a valuable commodity, some recent examples of on-site composting could shed new light on waste management.

Turning Manure to Gold

At least one small operation in Washington state has gone from paying a topsoil producer to haul manure to charging a nursery for taking it after it’s been composted. After labor costs are deducted, and after making back the initial $5,250 outlay for equipment and training (the farm already had a three-bay shed available for use), the 16-stall training and sales operation actually earns between $1,000 and $1,200 per month when at full capacity.

“We produce between three and four truckloads of horse manure compost each month, and we sell every bit of it,” says Darrel Parker, owner of Woods Creek Horse Farm in Monroe, Washington. “We’re way ahead of where we were. . . . We turned a liability into an asset.”

Before turning to composting, Woods Creek spent $4,800 per year for manure disposal, and they did the hauling. Today, they sell more than 1,500 cubic yards of compost annually. The large tree nursery that purchases the compost packs the material around the root balls of its trees, a practice that is becoming commonplace as sawdust is becoming more difficult and expensive to obtain. In 1998, the farm added $12,500 to their bottom line by selling its compost.

“In virtually all cases,” says Peter Moon, a composting consultant who set up Woods Creek Farm’s program, “composting will cost less than hauling, provided you set up a market for it.” Moon, a principal in Price-Moon Enterprises in Snohomish, Wash., says a 40-horse operation can save up to $9,000 a year by composting on-site.

“Composting is very adaptable to different scales of farms,” says Bob Rynk, who edited the “On-Farm Composting?Handbook” published by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in New York. “And it’s one of the best options for horse farms.”?He says that of all animal waste, horse manure is best suited to composting because it usually has plenty of hay and bedding already mixed in and has an easy-to-manage consistency. But, Rynk warns, “Once you start thinking you can make money composting, then you cross a line and the effort grows.”

But without stepping over that line, composting will at least solve a number of waste management issues and, if managed correctly, won’t create too much work.

Nature at Work

The composting process uses the microorganisms found in manure to speed up the decay process with nutrients (nitrogen and carbon), moisture, heat and air. The nitrogen comes from the manure, the carbon from hay, wood shavings, sawdust or other plant materials. The microorganisms heat up the compost by feeding on the moist manure and dry bedding material. But it is the last ingredient, air, that moves everything along. (When air is not mixed into compost and the pile sits, the process turns anaerobic, creating intense odors and carbon dioxide.)

The problem with typical composting is that the piles need to be turned over frequently to mix air into the waste piles. But Woods Creek Farm uses a labor-saving strategy called aerated static pile composting. It relies on a system of perforated plastic pipes embedded in a layer of wood chips beneath the pile. The pipes are connected to an air pump that draws air through the pile to speed up decomposition. The air pump is operated by an automatic timer, which saves on labor and cuts down on odor by forcing the exhausted air into a pile of finished, screened compost that acts as a filter. For every three minutes that it runs, the pump shuts down for about 12 minutes for four aeration cycles per hour. The system is set to run 24-hours a day, seven-days a week, for about 30 to 40 days to complete the active phase of composting.

Aside from speeding up the process, forcing air into the compost pile controls the pile’s temperature and moisture content; controls odors, flies and other nuisance factors; eliminates pathogens and weed seeds; and, according to those who use it, produces superior compost. And because the pile doesn’t have to be frequently turned over, it saves space and can be contained in a shed. Larger operations can set up such systems outside of buildings by using a generous layer of screened compost on top of the piles to absorb rainwater. And, naturally, depending on the site (large or small), water diversion ditches may be necessary to channel surface water away from the piles.

Regardless of the method you choose, a proper approach to dealing with barn waste requires careful planning and vigilance, but the end result will help keep everyone happy.