Tuesday, January 25, 2011

That's horse...

A pile of horse manure does not compost make. Genuinely composting involves some science, a touch of management and a dash of art.

If you're willing to tackle the composting recipe, you can turn that 32 pounds of manure the average horse produces each day into something safe and useful.

Is the effort worth it? Consider the benefits, said Ellen Phillips, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. The process of composting reduces the volume of material by about two thirds; reduces issues with odor; reduces fly populations; kills bad bacteria; fungus, and yeasts; plus it kills weed seeds.

"Composted horse manure is a safe soil amendment if you're spreading it back on pastures or fields. Compost also is free of viable weed seeds and is almost sterile in terms of pathogens, so it's good for use in gardens and potting plants," Phillips said.

Simply stacking manure isn't composting. Composting involves an anaerobic bacterial process that requires air to work properly. A pile of manure left to its own decomposes via aerobic bacterial process and in essence it rots, Phillips said. Rotten manure is going to be loaded with pathogens and will smell bad, all the while providing a home to flies.

As it turns out, horse manure is a near ideal candidate for composting. Pure horse manure contains near ideal ratios of nitrogen and carbon components that make it compostable with limited need for adding anything to make composting work, she said.

There are numerous ways to get started composting horse manure, Phillips said. People often get caught up in the facilities and equipment of composting, but if you have a good understanding of how the process works you can manage composting with limited means.

"The process requires air to work. Keep that in mind. As long as you have a way to turn the manure from time to time, you can just make piles on the ground. The piles need to be large enough to start the heating process, and I recommend making a pile 4 feet tall as a minimum and 6 feet tall is about right. If you make the pile too tall and too big then you lose some of the aerobic activity," she said.

Once you have a pile of the right size, stop adding fresh material and monitor the temperature. The pile should heat up quickly - to no more than about 160 degrees - and then begin to cool down. Heating and cooling may take up to three weeks. Once the pile cools to room temperature or so, it's time to turn the pile. You may need a loader to turn a large pile, but if you have the labor, turning by hand does the same thing.

After you turn a pile it will heat up again. Keep turning the pile until the heating process stops. At that stage, the bacteria have used up the available food and you're left with a high quality fertilizer. How long the process takes will depend on weather, temperature and moisture.

Phillips noted there are a few things to keep in mind when considering horsemanure composting. Make an estimate of how much material the horses in your stable are generating. You can count wheelbarrows out, or estimate on a per horse basis about how many cubic feet of manure are being produced each day.

"You'll need enough room to make your composting piles, so you need to know how much manure is being produced. There needs to be enough space to keep making piles and turning the piles based on how much manure you have," she said.

Knowing how much manure is being created is important if you build facilities such as compost bins. The bins and equipment need to be sized to the task at hand. You don't want to spend more than is needed to build facilities and you want the facilities you build to properly do the job.

Locate all manure handing areas where drainage won't seep into surface or groundwater. It's considered good public relations to keep manure handling areas out of sight of the public and managed with environmentally sound methods, Phillips said.

Composting works best if the compost is all horse manure. Bedding such as wood shavings can affect the process. Try to separate the manure from the bedding. In some composting situations, adding some straw or similar materials is useful to the process, she said. If the horse manure has a high amount of wood shavings you may need to add a nitrogen source such as urea to feed the bacteria.

"You'll need to learn how to compost," Phillips said. "Moisture levels and air temperature make a difference. The pile should be about 65 percent moisture, so at times you may have to add water or dry matter to keep it adjusted. And composting doesn't work as well during really cold weather because it affects the heating process."

"No two compost piles are the same. It may take you a year or two to begin to get the hang of it. We can explain the science, but you'll need to apply the management and learn the art of composting yourself," Phillips said.

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