Not long after Anna and Brian Smith of Camden, North Carolina, built their barn in 2007, they realized they had a problem. With four horses in residence, "The manure was really piling up," says Anna.
Keeping horses will drain your checkbook, steal your time and sap your energy—but horse manure is one item you're sure to have in ever-increasing amounts. An average horse produces about 50 pounds of the stuff every day, or more than eight tons a year. Add a few more tons of soiled bedding, multiply the total times the number of horses you keep and just try not to feel overwhelmed. What will you do with it all?
"Unless it's properly managed, horse manure can pose risks to the environment and to health," says Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Carrie Swanson, who co-authored (with fellow agent Crystal Smith) an Extension publication on manure management (online at www.ext.vt.edu). Here, with Carrie's help, we'll outline the top options for making your horse manure pile disappear.
Why It Matters
Back in the bad old days, most horse barns had a mountain of manure out back or, sometimes, out front. You don't see that so often now, for reasons that include
- parasites. Manure can contain the eggs of strongyles, roundworms and other internal parasites. If it's not properly handled, the eggs (or larvae that hatch from them) can contaminate pastures, feed or water and infect other horses.
- pests. Manure piles are prime breeding grounds for stable flies, face flies, houseflies and several other types. They can also become cozy burrowing sites for rats.
- water quality. Excess nutrients and other contaminants can leach from poorly managed manure into streams, lakes and ponds, upsetting the ecological balance and causing environmental damage.
- regulations. There are federal regulations pertaining to manure management and water quality, as well as state and local regulations, Carrie says. "These may or may not affect horse operations, depending on the location," she adds. "The regulatory agency also varies from state to state, but the county Extension agent should be able to explain local requirements."
- aesthetics. The sight of a manure pile won't do much for your property value or your relations with neighbors, and neither will the smell. A typical pile produces nasty byproducts like methane gas as the manure slowly molders inside it.
You can avoid or at least minimize these problems with a good manure management program. And because horse manure is a source of nutrients for plants, it can be a valuable resource. Managing horse manure can be complex, though, and what works for one barn may not work so well for another. Tailor your program to your situation.
Manure contains nutrients for plant growth and can improve the condition of the soil—so why not put it to work?
Good if: You have a lot of land, a tractor and a manure spreader.
How it works: Manure can go directly from your stalls to your fields, where over time it will break down and nourish the soil. Here are some dos and don'ts:
- Spread thinly—apply only what you need to improve your land, based on soil tests.
- Spread manure in spring and summer, not when the ground is frozen or in rainy seasons when it may just wash away. (This means you'll need to stockpile stall waste at times; see the box on page 56 for some storage tips.)
- Don't spread fresh manure on pastures where horses will graze anytime soon. It may contain parasite eggs that can survive for weeks or months, depending on conditions. It'll do no harm on pastures that are being rested or grazed by other species, though. (A good deworming program, with fecal egg counts to monitor success, will minimize this risk.)
- Don't spread on floodplains or other areas where water runs seasonally or after rains, near wellheads and other groundwater sources, in areas where the water table is high or on slopes bordering streams and ponds.
- Apply a nitrogen fertilizer if your fresh stall waste contains sawdust or wood shavings. Microbes that break down the wood products draw nitrogen from the soil, and that can stunt plant growth. Nitrogen fertilizer counteracts the effect. Or, to avoid the problem completely, compost manure before spreading it.
Tip: Contact your local Cooperative Extension office for advice on testing soil and developing a nutrient management plan, a plan that outlines your farm's manure production, soil fertility and recommended manure application rates. Local soil and water conservation districts or a local branch of the Natural Resources Conservation Service can help you identify seasonal wetlands and other sensitive areas where manure shouldn't be spread.
Piles in the Pasture
|Although manure is a natural fertilizer and can help plants grow, it causes problems in paddocks and pastures if it's not managed well. Clumps of manure become breeding grounds for flies and can create runoff that pollutes streams and ponds. And because horses don't like to graze in areas where they poop, those areas become "roughs," overgrown with tall grass and weeds. Other areas become "lawns," grazed down enough to weaken the plants. Here are two ways to keep the problems at bay:
Pick: Clean turnout areas regularly to keep manure from building up. How often you need to do this depends on your situation. If your paddocks are small and the ground tends to be wet, you may need to pick daily. You can pick less often with a few horses turned out on a large area, focusing on the areas where the horses tend to poop. If the job's overwhelming, consider a paddock vacuum.
Mow, harrow and rest: Done once or twice a year, this is an effective way to eliminate roughs and lawns in large paddocks and pastures. Mowing cuts all the plants to the same height, stimulating new growth. Dragging with a harrow spreads the manure over a wider area and breaks up clumps, so they decompose more quickly. Minimize the risk of spreading parasites by implementing a good deworming program, harrowing only in warm, dry weather (moisture encourages parasite larvae to hatch and thrive) and keeping horses off the field for three to four weeks afterward.