Buckets of Muck

When food is ingested at one end of the horse, waste material will exit at the other end. That process will continue as long as the horse lives and will cause varying problems to the horse owner, depending on where he or she lives.

As urban sprawl continues to eat away open spaces in this country, the problem grows of what to do with manure from recreational and commercial horses. Back when horses and agriculture formed a kingly partnership, equine waste was no problem, even though there were many more horses in that era. During that time, agriculturalists didn't have access to sophisticated fertilizers that can regulate everything in the soil from nitrogen content to the amount of nutrients made available to plants. The only fertilizer in those early days was manure. It was first spread on the fields by manure spreaders and plowed under to decay and provide the plants with sustenance. In most locales, unsightly manure piles existed only during the winter months. Then in the spring, before fly time arrived, the manure was conveyed to the fields to fulfill its important task of fertilizing the soil.

Often, that is still the waste disposal method of choice. However, in some urban areas, agricultural fields are simply too far away for that approach to be practical. New, innovative ways have developed to let owners keep horses at home and still not pose health risks and annoyance to neighbors.

We will take a look at some of the approaches to equine waste removal and disposal that have been developed. There is no single source for the information that follows; it comes from a variety of individuals and publications. At some time, nearly every county extension division in all 50 states has promulgated information on animal waste disposal. Sections of textbooks have been devoted to the subject, and a wide variety of pamphlets and informational booklets have been distributed.

A bit later, we will include suggested guidelines for equine waste disposal as set forth by the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension Service for the heavily populated state of New Jersey. The guidelines, which are not binding but have the endorsement of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture Division of Horse Industry and the New Jersey Horse Council, appear to point the way for the future of equine waste management in heavily populated areas.

First, there are some basic facts and problems to be addressed.

How Much Waste?

For starters, we'll look at the scope of the problem. A 1,000-pound horse produces somewhere between 40 and 50 pounds of manure per day if well fed. That adds up to between seven and eight tons per year. Add in urine-soaked bedding that is cleared from the stall with the manure and the weight almost doubles. Add in multiple horses and the problem multiplies.

Perhaps part of the problem with many horse owners is that they view this waste product as that and nothing more--waste. Actually, the waste material is valuable in the purely economic sense and also in the role it plays when added to the soil.

Here are just a few of the positive things that manure does for soil, according to the late M.E. Ensminger in his all-inclusive book Horses and Horsemanship: "(Manure) supplies valuable organic matter which cannot be secured in chemical fertilizers," he writes. "Organic matter--which constitutes 3-6% by weight, of most soils--improves soil tilth (its ability to be cultivated), increases water-holding capacity, lessens water and wind erosion, improves aeration, and has a beneficial effect on soil microorganisms and plants. It is the lifeblood of the land."

That's a pretty impressive list of capabilities for this lowly product, and there is more. Ensminger also reports that about 75% of the nitrogen, 80% of the phosphorus, and 85% of the potassium contained in horse feeds are returned as manure. In addition, about 40% of the organic matter is excreted as manure. As a rule of thumb, he adds, it is commonly estimated that 80% of the total nutrients in feeds are excreted by horses as manure.

Urine makes up about 20% of the total weight of the excrement of horses, and urine is more readily available to plants as fertilizer than is manure.

Ensminger conducted some additional calculations. With approximately four million horses and mules producing manure and urine in the United States, the total quantity is in the neighborhood of 31.552 million tons annually. Applying a monetary value as fertilizer to each of these tons, Ensminger concluded that the annual manure crop in the United States is worth $159.338 million. That's a hefty sum for muck.

Spreading the Muck Around

Of course, if this product is to be used on the land, we must have a way in which to convey it there. The time-honored approach is to load the manure in a mechanical spreader that sprays a light covering over the topsoil. In early days, these spreaders were quite basic. They consisted of iron wheels that set in motion chain-driven rotors and metal slats on the bed of the spreader. The load was continually moved to the rear by the horizontal elevator and sent flying by the rotors.

Today, the old steel wheels have been replaced by inflated rubber tires and the chain-driven apparatus is controlled by hydraulics. While the new manure spreaders are much more sophisticated than their old counterparts, they also are more expensive and often require a tractor instead of a team of horses.

However, research has not been totally quiet in this rather pedantic field. Now available are very small spreaders, some of which can be pulled by small garden tractors and even golf carts. Taking a tip from the old steel-wheeled spreaders, some of the newer variety are activated by the turning of the wheels. It is generally conceded that one should spread the manure in small pieces and the new spreaders accomplish that, cutting the manure into tiny pieces before sending them cascading out onto the field. The smaller the pieces of manure, the more quickly they break down and enter the soil. Small pieces also result in more exposure to the sun and the elements, which helps destroy the life cycle of parasites that might be residing in the manure.

There are some drawbacks to spreading raw manure on a field. One of the prime drawbacks involves weed seeds the horse might have eaten. If the manure is not composted, the weed seeds can survive the elements and sprout in the spring.

One of the best ways to spread manure naturally is by letting horses roam free on pastures. They defecate wherever they happen to be when the urge strikes, sometimes while walking--thus scattering the manure.

However, this is not a panacea if the pasture is small with several horses inhabiting it. In the west, for example, the arid winters and cold weather seem to preclude the decomposition of manure in a pasture. If it's allowed to remain untouched, the result often is areas of heavy grass growth around each manure pile in the spring. Horses tend to avoid eating next to their own droppings, and soon the pasture is dotted with clumps of uneaten grass while the non-manure areas are cropped close to the ground.

The solution is to drag the pasture to break up individual mounds of manure and scatter them far and wide. A metal drag--or even a metal gate pulled behind a pickup or tractor--will do the job. When dragging fields, make sure it is done when the weather is hot and dry to kill parasites and prevent them from contaminating your fields and spreading among horses in your herd.

As mentioned earlier, large fields and pastures often aren't available to horse owners seeking to get rid of manure. However, this does not mean that the waste product has no value and is a serious burden. Manure can be composted and sold to gardeners as fertilizer. This market continues to grow as more and more attention is given to organic fruits and vegetables.

Composting

The problem with composting is that more effort is involved. First and foremost, composting does not mean just heaping the manure into a pile and allowing it to remain there. To do the job correctly, an appropriate area must be prepared and some attention must given to the compost pile to ensure that the correct amounts of heat, air, and moisture are involved.

Basically, composting involves the breaking down of biodegradable waste material into a soil mix that is rich in nutrients and has far less offensive odor than a pile of manure. There are other advantages: The compost pile's heat kills parasite eggs and weed seeds and also makes it impossible for flies and other insects to use it as a breeding ground.

When preparing a compost pile, a key consideration involves placing it in an area where it cannot pollute streams or underground water supplies. One approach might involve pouring a concrete slab as the base and building walls on three sides of the slab. The fourth side will be left open to provide entry and exit of the waste material. The size of the compost area will be dictated by the number of horses involved. No matter the size, the key elements involved in successful composting are temperature, air, and moisture.

It is not unusual for temperatures in a compost pile to reach 150-160ºF. Temperatures at that level can kill weed seeds, insect larvae, and disease pathogens. However, care must be taken so that the compost pile doesn't get much hotter than that or the helpful microbes might be killed off.

To make proper use of air, moisture, and temperature, the compost pile must be turned--either by hand or mechanically--at the rate of two or three times per week for the first three weeks or more.

"When the pile is fully composted it will level off at about 100ºF," says Ensminger. "The pile needs air because the process is aerobic; the microbes need air to continue breaking down the contents. Water should be added as needed to keep the moisture content of the pile at about 55-60%--about as wet as a squeezed-out sponge."

Once the compost pile is established, the next task is to find a market. Local gardeners, if they are made aware that you have a compost pile, often will take all your horses can produce.

Other Options

If spreading or composting are not suitable in your locale, there can be other approaches. Some horse owners bag the manure and waste bedding and place it in lidded dumpsters to be picked up by garbage collectors and hauled to a landfill.

When many horses are involved, the manure problem can be quite sizable. During 2003 at Pennsylvania State University, it was reported in a paper by Melissa Davis of Penn State, approximately 130 loads of manure, averaging 2,000 pounds per load, were hauled away from the horse barns, creating a total of 260,000 pounds. The manure was generated during the winter months when the school's horses were stabled. During the summer months, many of them are on pasture.

Fortunately for Penn State, some of the manure is used in a mushroom growing operation. The manure is stored temporarily in a large roofed shed with concrete sides and open eaves for circulation. From there it is either spread on pastures or taken to the mushroom facility.

In some large equine facilities, manure is hauled away and deposited in landfills by commercial waste-removal operations. The downside to this approach can be the high cost for the service.

New Jersey Guidelines

Earlier we mentioned New Jersey guidelines. Here is how a portion of those guidelines read, relative to manure disposal:

"The manure disposal area must be in a low profile position, cause no nuisance, and be at least 50 feet from a property line and no closer than 100 feet from a swimming pool, tennis court, or patio located on adjoining premises. Manure should be removed daily from all interior housing and/or exterior lots."

Once the manure is removed, according to the guidelines, it must be handled in one of these manners (which are summarized):

  • Used immediately by spreading on gardens or fields, with application not to exceed 10 tons per acre.
  • Incorporated into a composting procedure. (A manure pile, it was noted, does not constitute a composting procedure.)
  • Stored in an undercover (rain-free), well-drained, screened, and fly-free storage area, located 50 feet or more from the property line, until it is removed by one of the above methods.
  • Placed in tightly closed bags until removal by a garbage collecting service.

Take-Home Message

If you have horses, you have muck. How you dispose of it will depend on your location, how much land you have, and ordinances in your area. Make sure that you are not contaminating ground water sources and are being a good neighbor to avoid problems with local authorities.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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