Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Black Gold" ...or..."Piles o' Poop"

Funder, over at It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, was asking about composting and horse manure the other day. The last couple of weeks have been crazy at school (even before Halloween kicked in), so I promised to get back to her. Last night I left such a long comment that Blogger didn't even want to accept it. (I tried three times, and then when I looked, it had posted three times! Oh well, that's what the trash can is for.)
Then I got to thinking that the whole saga needed illustration, so here is a slightly expanded version, with photos.

Although I've looked into some very high-falutin' technological systems for composting my manure, I actually take a very simple approach.
I bed on pellets, so it is really easy to keep the majority of the bedding out of my compost pile (I would say less than 10%). Pellets are also known to decompose the fastest of any bedding material (except maybe shredded paper, though that has other issues). During the winter I pick my stalls nightly, if the horses have been in (I only give them access in the really bleak weather--wet and cold--except for my old retired boarder, who has 24/7 access to his stall). Each stall has it's own muck bucket and fork, so this goes quickly.

My pile is out from the end of the barn about 40-50 feet. I spread the compost on my 12 acres or so of pastures in the spring, and leave just a small "starter" pile for the coming winter--mostly from the little manure collected over the summer from the grooming stall and horse trailer, and from a fall "stripping" of the stalls. By spring I'd say my pile is probably 30' by 30' and 8-10 feet high (as high as my little tractor bucket can reach).
Each weekend, the muck buckets get emptied into the tractor bucket (I know, I'm WAY spoiled! but after all, I'm dealing with five horses--at one time ten) and dropped on one side of the manure pile. I do a more intense job on the stalls, especially any wet spots (here's where bedding gets in to the pile); again, into the tractor bucket and out to the pile.
I either pick the paddocks, or use the tractor to scrape the really popular spots; all then goes to the main pile. In some of these older photos, where you see quite a bit of hay and/or straw, it would be either foaling stall straw or wasted hay from around the tire-feeders I used to use (my new-last-year slow feeders have really cut down on that!)Once all that "fresh" manure is deposited, I use the tractor bucket to turn the opposite side of the pile towards/over the new material. Just like kneading bread, each week I choose a different spot to add my new material and fold from the opposite side. I lift the bucket high to better mix, shred and aerate the material.
We are on the back side of the mountains, as Funder is, so it is a dryer, high desert climate in summer. I will occasionally let the irrigation sprinklers hit the pile, if I think it is getting too dry. At that point I'm not adding much, if any, new manure, as the horses are on pasture 24/7 and I just drag the pastures with a blanket harrow to work the manure in every so often. In the winter it's not usually sopping wet, so I haven't ever had to tarp my pile--though once or twice it has gotten a bit soggy, it always recovers. I don't add any additional "dry" material (other than the occasional bad hay bale).
At various times this pile (or two, when there were more horses) might have actually been in one of the paddocks. The older horses pretty much left it alone, but sometimes the babies [Jackson!] would decide it was a great place to play and romp! So now that I'm down on numbers I can leave it out of reach in my "extra" paddock.

When I go to turn the pile it is always steaming hot. I suppose I could worry about the "optimal" temperature, but I know that it's definitely hot enough to kill any weed seeds, parasite eggs, or other unwanted contaminants.
It also might be interesting to note that I don't have much of a problem with flies in the summer. I think if I went to the trouble of adding the fly predators to the pile in the summer, I probably wouldn't have any!
I still turn the pile from time to time over the spring and summer, after the horses go out on pasture and I've stopped adding new material. It will continue to "cook" most of the way to fall.
It usually takes me two half days to spread the compost on the pastures. I got the New Holland 50 bushel spreader for my 2007-2008 birthday/anniversary/Christmas presents. I got the PTO version (instead of ground-driven) because it gives me more options for unloading--including just piling it up in one spot (this came in handy on another composting project that I will save for a future post). (These three photos are from the first year I had the spreader--it was actually a little late to be putting the compost on the fields, as the ground was starting to freeze. But I had to play with my new toy! Not to mention getting the previous year's piles out of the way for the coming winter.) I'll use a little for a few planters--it's rich and dark and works just as it is for most plants. Evergreens especially like the slightly acidic nature of horse manure, but I think that composting eliminates any danger to other plants. This is also one advantage of having some bedding material or old/moldy hay incorporated in with the manure--it reduces the nitrogen levels a bit, which is where horse manure gets the reputation of "burning" plants--I've never had a problem with this, however. I think I've mentioned that I'm death to plants, so I don't garden in any formal sense--no veggies and only flowers that can take care of themselves. This planter was just old cedar split posts and rocks, filled with compost straight out of the pile. (I did let it age there for one more winter before I finally got around to adding seeds.)


  1. Those are some awesome compost pictures! And your neglectful garden is lovely.

    You know it's love when your honey gets you a manure spreader for all the presents one year. What's the difference in a ground drive vs a PTO?

  2. The manure spreader those two years, and the horse trailer last year, this year, next year,...

    PTO= "power take off." There's a yellow drive shaft that hooks up to the tractor, and the tractor engine runs the flails and bed track. I can drive slower to get more coverage, or faster for thin, or as I mentioned, stay in one place and simply unload in to a new pile (with the load thrashed pretty well in the process).
    Ground driven is just that, the turning of the wheels turns the gears that run the spreader machinery. Therefore one can only empty it when one is moving, and the speed one is moving directly determines the speed of the discharge.

  3. Oh, I gotcha! Great explanation.

    Yes, a horse trailer is the "I swear I will never ask for anything EVER AGAIN" present. I do think that horse women, while expensive, are actually a lot easier to keep happy than "normal" women. One trailer = eternal gratitude, vs... what to normal women want? A lot of clothes?

  4. I'm pretty sure a TRUCK = eternal gratitude. Only because I already have a trailer (I bought it myself)....

  5. This is my very favorite kind of post - a description with pictures about daily life at the farm and waste management: )

    Great photos! I use pellets too, because they are so absorbent and don't get everywhere like shavings and micro-straw*. When the micro-straw was sticking to my shoes and getting all over my house, I went back to the pellets.

    (* I don't know what you call it or if you have it in the US, it's like straw that's been processed down to where each piece is only 1/4 inch in length.)

    I've just removed all the dirt from my greenhouse and dug into my manure box to find the best compost, and brought it bucket by bucket up the hill into my greenhouse to make a base layer. In the spring I'll have to buy all new dirt, but I hope to have less indoor weeds in 2011!

    The rest of my manure pile got spread (shovel and wheelbarrow method) out on our hang (a slope). Out in the pasture, I use the manure fork method of finding piles, separating them, and tossing them to the 4 winds to spread them. With only one or two horses, it's not so much work, and I kind of enjoy preening my field by hand.

    Currently I'm waiting for the millions of sheep poo piles to disintegrate from this heavy rain. Come on rain, I hate finding green goo on my horse!

  6. Aarene--We already have the truck. In fact it started out as Al's! When we first got together I bought him a [Matchbox] truck and he bought me a [Lincoln] log cabin. He eventually traded up to a real '79 Chevy ("the bronze bomber"), then a 93 Chevy, now he considers the '03 Jimmy to be mine. And I've got the farm, and the barn. He's got his cameras, though--and just got a new telephoto lens!

    Lytha--I think I remember how disgusted you were with the micro straw! Why do you remove the greenhouse dirt? Can't you just "amend" it with the compost and call it good? I would think the sheep poo would pretty much equate with Funder's goat poo--small enough to work itself in pretty quickly, especially with the rain... I can appreciate your concern about the green goo--Maddie's a regular detective in finding the worst pile and lying in it!

  7. I emptied the greenhouse entirely of dirt because I was so sick of the weeds. I'd been using random mole hill dirt for my greenhouse, and adding compost and fertilizer etc and this year I had so many weeds I actually lost my entire Cilantro section. It was chaos. I also had 20 tomatoes grow, and I'd only planted 4. HM. So now it's all gone, and I hope to be able to find my veggies next year more easily.

    Oh, and those sheep, they all had some sort of digestive issue and all the piles were soupy like cattle poo. Nasty! I hope it's gone soon.

  8. Lytha, I wonder if you could incorporate that dirt, a little at a time, into your compost pile, so the heat could kill off the seeds... Wouldn't want to kill off the compost howsomeever.
    Give me horse poop over cow-or in this case sheep-poop, ANY DAY!

  9. Thanks for all the pictures and commentary about composting. We don't do it but probably should, it's just the way the property is set up makes it almost impossible to do without annoying the neighbors. We use a dumpster.

    Love your spreader. I really need one since ours broke and rusted out, it was soooo old. Thanks again for a great idea for a Christmas present, hubby's been asking what I want and now I know. I'll tell him he has you to thank!

  10. Very informative. I need a tractor!! (even though I'm scared of them)