If you've got a horse, you know manure happens. The average-size Dobbin produces approximately 40 pounds of horse manure per day. Multiply that by 30 days for a per-month total. Multiply that by 12 months, and you've got more than 7 tons of waste per year. If you have more than one horse, you're talking double-digit tonnage. Holy humus, Batman! What do you do with that pile of, er, stuff?
We posted the question on the Internet, and fellow horse manure managers spoke up. We'll share with you their solutions for mini-mizing that organic byproduct of horse ownership. So put down that pitchfork and read on!
Solution #1: Recycle it
What You Do: Start a compost pile. That's a heap of organic material (in your case, horse manure and bedding) that's stored in such a way as to encourage rapid decomposition, and thus a reduction in bulk. Your compost pile can also include yard/garden clippings and such garbage foodstuffs as vegetable peelings.
Why It Works: When you compost organic matter, you create a combination of heat, chemicals, and beneficial bacteria that morphs it from decaying yuck into rich soil. (You can shrink the size of your waste pile by 50 percent in a matter of months.) You can use the end result as nutrient-rich topsoil on your pastures, lawn, and garden-or you can sell it.
How to Do It: Here's a plan from our horse manure managers.
- Build a composter. As a rule of thumb, an 8-by-8-foot square area surrounded by three 5-foot walls will accommodate one horse's waste. (Enlarge it accordingly to accommodate your equine population.) You can start a compost pile on raw ground, but a cement pad will make it easier to use a tractor for managing the pile. (More about that in a minute.) Construct walls of concrete, cinder block, or treated 2-by-10s. If time and money are at a premium (and when aren't they?), our manure managers say you can also start a compost pile on raw ground, and without container walls. But decomposition may be slowed. Containment encourages rapid breakdown by allowing the manure to be piled deep enough, from end to end, for heat to accumulate and speed up the process. If you opt for a free-standing compost pile, cover it with black plastic to amplify the sun's heat.
- Start piling your horse manure in the composter. To accelerate decomposition, keep your compost pile about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. You can regulate its moisture content by occasionally spraying it with a hose, and/or by covering it when necessary with a plastic tarp to protect it from excessive rains or drying sunshine.
- Aerate it. To achieve rapid, even decomposition, you'll need to "stir" the pile. When you do, air combines with the moist organic matter to accelerate decay. You'll also spread heat and bacteria throughout the pile, so cooler, bacteria-poor areas can join the party. You can achieve aeration in two ways: manual and passive. If you have a tractor with a front-end loader, you can manually stir the pile every week or 2. The more often you turn it, the sooner you convert that pile of puckey into rich soil. If you don't have a tractor, turning the pile with a shovel will achieve the same result-but it's a lot of darn work.
Passive aeration requires no manual labor. Instead, before you begin composting, lay several 4- to 6-inch diameter PVC pipes (the kind with holes in them, used for septic systems) across the base of your pile. You can also insert several pipes, chimneylike, into what will be the pile's center. The more pipes you use, the more aeration occurs.
Upside: You're converting waste into a useful product-rich soil. You can use it on your own sandy or clay ground as a nutrient-rich topsoil, or sell it to gardeners at a premium price. (In one reader's Northwestern town, compost sells at the local topsoil dealer for $8 per cubic yard, undelivered; $11.50, delivered.) Heat generated by a properly functioning compost pile also kills any parasites in the manure, so you needn't worry about contaminating your fields with equine worm larvae should you use it yourself. Heat also kills weed seeds from hay and bedding, and any undigested oats, so the compost is great in flower and vegetable gardens. Plus, composting reduces odor and flies.
Downside: Proper composting takes effort, as you need to monitor moisture levels and tend to aeration. Also, decomposition doesn't happen overnight. How fast your compost "cooks" depends upon weather conditions and waste content. For instance, is the manure mixed with rapidly decomposing bedding, such as straw, fine shavings or sawdust, rice hulls, wheat byproducts, or shredded computer paper? Or is it mixed with slower-to-break-down, dense wood shavings? As a rule of thumb, an 8-by-8-by-4-foot high pile of manure mixed with straw or fine shavings can take 2 to 3 months to compost down 50 percent.