Manure management

Proper manure management is a critical part of horse ownership. In fact, failure to keep your horse’s waste in check can have a detrimental effect on his health. Fortunately, if you’re diligent, you can mitigate these dangers.

Horses poop… a lot. In fact, horses produce anywhere between 30 to 50 pounds of manure (and about two gallons of urine) per day. That equals roughly ten tons of waste per year, per horse! It is the responsibility of every farm owner to implement a manure management plan that matches the size of his/her property and the intended use for the poop. This is an essential for keeping dangers such as ammonia, parasites, molds and infections at bay in your barn and paddocks. Luckily, there are several tried-and-true methods of manure management to consider, such as composting, pasture rotation, and environmentally-friendly storage techniques.

Health risks associated with waste build-up

Limiting the build-up of equine excrement is essential to your horse’s health and safety. Controlling ammonia in barns and paddocks, for instance, is a critical component of good hygiene. “Ammonia is not only insulting to your nose, but also has detrimental effects on your horse’s health,” says Ontario Veterinary College student, Kristyne Smith. “Ammonia can significantly damage both the human and equine respiratory system lining, leaving the horse or person at a greater risk for developing an infection or chronic airway disease.” Smith adds that respiratory diseases are often lifelong problems that drastically limit a horse’s performance and comfort. Using a stall freshener such as lime can help neutralize ammonia in the short term, but the healthiest way to freshen the air is with regular mucking.

When it comes to manure, one of the biggest dangers is the parasites such as small strongyles, roundworms and tapeworms that can be found within it. “The best way to prevent the spread of internal parasites is through proper fecal counts, a good deworming program, and good manure management,” advises Smith. “Removing manure from paddocks is extremely efficient for reducing worm burdens (the number of worms a horse carries).”

Unsurprisingly, stalls and paddocks thick with wet fecal matter will often have detrimental effects on the hooves of their equine inhabitants. “It contributes to the ‘mud’ factor which increases the chance for thrush and rotting soles,” says Smith. “Manure left in paddocks allows for parasites to flourish, and once frozen can act as stones to cause bruises. It also impairs grazing areas from growing grass if it is left in piles, and of course attracts pesky flies.”

Manure management methods   

Manure can be spread straight onto fields as long as there are no animals grazing there in the next few months. With exposure to sun and rain, the manure will break down into the soil, but there is a possibility of weed seeds having passed through your animals and germinating among your crops. Composting your manure eliminates any seeds, as well as parasite eggs, odor and bacteria; plus it improves nutrient density in your soil.

Composting is the process of piling your horse’s feces in a heap at least three feet wide by three feet high, and balancing the levels of nitrogen, carbon, moisture and oxygen. Microorganisms inherent in the manure will take it from there, heating up to temperatures of 122°F to 140°F (50°C to 60°C), and will provide you with lush “black gold” in just four to six weeks. Nitrogen and carbon levels can be maintained by adding roughage such as straw or bedding.

Moisture in composting manure should be kept at around 40% to 65%. You can test for moisture content by performing a “wet rag test”. Squeeze a ball of compost in your hand. No water should seep out, but the ball should feel damp, like a wet rag. (Always wash your hands after handling poop.) The other important component of effective composting is ensuring the microorganisms have adequate access to oxygen to kick-start the aerobic (rapid and oxygen-loving) composting processes. This is done by turning over your compost pile roughly once a week. Without access to oxygen, anaerobic composting processes take over, which are much slower and can smell foul.

It’s important to consider the environmental impact of your manure pile. While common sense may tell us that manure from a grazing animal is natural and harmless, the fact is that runoff from manure piles contains high levels of toxins that can pollute waterbeds. If grazing animals are set up near a river or pond, ensure a grass buffer of about 100’ (30m) wide separates the manure from the water so that vegetation can help filter out the toxins. In addition, keeping stored manure under a roof of some kind prevents the rain from washing away either valuable nutrients or possible pollutants. It is also important to refer to the federal, state and local manure management regulations in your area to ensure your protocol is fully compliant.

Off-site manure management

Not all farms will have a use for their stockpiled horse manure. In these cases, arrangements will need to be made to have the manure hauled away. Try to find a farmer, landscaper or gardener who will use the manure, instead of hauling it to the dump where the valuable nutrients will go to waste, and where it will potentially become a biohazard.

If the right equipment is not available, hiring a hauling company is an option, though often a costly one. Different arrangements can be made based on local demand, such as having a container placed on your property by either a commercial hauler or local gardener to be picked up when full.

With some creativity and strategic community outreach, you may be able to sell your manure for a profit. Composting the manure creates a more attractive finished product that can easily be sold in containers such as empty feed bags.

Whether your farm is a two-pitchfork operation or has a state-of-the-art fleet of tractors and manure spreaders, it is essential to have a plan for what to do with all that poo.