Keeping Barns Clean

Keeping a barn clean is paramount to your horse's health, and your own, especially when you consider that a 1,000-pound horse produces roughly 50 pounds of manure and anywhere from six to 10 gallons of urine a day. Between the manure and the soiled bedding, the resulting waste is estimated at 20 tons a year. And, when you include the accompanying pests--from stable flies to parasite larvae--it's a sure bet that you need to keep your barn clean to keep your horse healthy.

Effects of Waste
The daily accumulation of waste from horses living in a stabled environment opens the way for bacteria and parasites to do their worst. And, if horses are left to stand in urine-soaked bedding and manure, the adverse affects can wreak havoc with delicate lungs and seemingly tough hooves.

Betsy Greene, PhD, an equine specialist at the University of Vermont's (UVM) Extension Service, explains, "Urine contains urea and hippuric acid, which as it breaks down, produces a volatile gas containing ammonia that can irritate sensitive tissues in both the eyes and lungs of horses and people alike."

She emphasizes the importance of keeping the barn well ventilated to minimize ammonia buildup. "If you walk into a barn and feel comfortably warm, chances are you'll also feel a sharp stinging in your eyes and nose from the by-products of ammonia and manure--that's what your horse is living with all the time," Greene says. "As a consequence, it's not surprising he may experience a host of health issues."

Greene recommends keeping fresh air circulating, even in the winter, but she cautions against creating drafts. "The idea is to establish cross-ventilation that will get rid or odors and stale air, not create a drafty environment, which can kick up dust that can contribute to eye and respiratory irritations," she says. "Two methods of air exchange include ridge vents and soffit vents, for example."

There are products on the market especially designed to eliminate odors and control moisture in horse stalls. One in particular is made from minerals known as zeolites which effectively absorb ammonia and associated gases by "locking up" the offending molecules, as well as de-moisturizing manure to arrest the development of insect larvae. "The benefits far outweigh the costs," remarks Greene. "On top of having an odor-free barn, you will also be inhibiting the fly population with a non-toxic, economical, environmentally friendly product."

On the other hand, hydrated lime is effective, but should be applied with caution. Greene points out that its caustic nature, which aids in the decomposition of urine and manure, can cause irritation to soft hoof tissue if it isn't covered up with adequate bedding.

Bob Coleman, PhD, with the University of Kentucky Extension Program, adds that horses should not be in the stall or barn when it is being cleaned and re-bedded. He says time is needed to allow the dust to settle and for the air to clear away any noxious fumes that have been released during cleaning.

Manure Management
If properly handled, the nutrients passed out in manure and urine can be recycled into the pasture to become viable nourishment. In fact, horse manure is considered to be a valuable farm commodity. For instance, a ton of horse manure not only provides organic matter and important trace minerals, it is equivalent to 100 pounds of 14-5-11 fertilizer (14% nitrogen/5% phosphorus/11% potash). But, regardless of whether you plan to use manure in your pasture or not, it must be removed from the stable area.

Manure removal- Daily collection is vital to maintaining a healthy stable environment, but what you do with it is arbitrary. If you don't have pasture space or choose not to spread or compost it, you can create a temporary stockpile until it can be hauled away. There are collection services that specialize in manure removal, or you can make arrangements with a waste management company to take the manure along with your other garbage. If this is the route you decide to go, make sure you choose a holding site far from the barn or paddocks and away from running water. Regardless of where you live, check the rules before you dump manure. For example, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's Accepted Agricultural Practice Conditions and Restrictions, "Manure stacking sites and storage of fertilizer and other nutrient sources shall not be located within 100 feet of wells or property boundaries."

Spreading- Another option is to spread the manure daily. To do this properly, you need to distribute it in a thin layer, which then needs to be harrowed in order to promote quick drying. It is this drying process that helps impede hatching of parasite eggs and larvae growth. As a cautionary note, while Coleman reluctantly accepts the custom of spreading fresh manure on an established grass pasture, he maintains that horses shouldn't be allowed to graze on it during that season to make sure the parasites have been eliminated.

"I've seen too many cases where owners have been tempted to disregard safe management practices by putting their horses on the pasture before it has had a chance to cure," says Coleman. "Even if it looks like the manure has been absorbed, the ground could still be harboring larvae and eggs. It's like feeding your horse a dose of parasites." He goes on to say that the other reason he doesn't look favorably upon spreading manure has to do with the idea of encouraging good neighbor relations. "As farms continue to be broken up and pasture land gives way to housing developments, having close non-horse neighbors is almost a certain reality in most states. Therefore, to keep everyone on cordial terms, it's important to respect the fact that they might not like the smell of manure drifting into their homes."

Greene also makes a point that you should check your state agricultural statutes with regard to your area's spreading season, as you will be held accountable should there be a complaint. In Vermont, for example, the Agency of Agriculture states, "Manure shall not be spread between Dec. 15 and April 1 unless the Secretary grants an exemption because of an emergency situation, such as, but not limited to, the structural failure of a manure storage system or for other specific management needs. In granting an exemption, the Secretary shall determine that the manure will be spread on fields with the least likelihood of generating runoff to the adjoining surface waters. Being granted an exemption does not relieve persons from complying with the Vermont Water Quality Standards." These standards are as follows: "Barnyards, manure storage areas, animal holding areas, and production areas shall be managed or controlled to prevent runoff of wastes to adjoining waters, groundwater, or across property boundaries."

Composting-  This is considered the most convenient and cost-effective approach to staying on top of the situation. With proper collection and management, the manure should transform into the darkly rich organic matter that is so highly prized as a soil conditioner and nutrient additive. There are three phases through which manure will go before the decomposition process is complete, and can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to mature depending on the nutrient values present in the manure.
"While composting is a great idea and should be considered, you would do well to contact your Extension service to learn the particulars of composting in your area," maintains Coleman. "It takes effort and time, but it's worth it in the end," he concludes.

 Following are the phases of composting.
Phase I is when manure is composed of undigested food mixed with digestive juices and bacteria that when combined with urine--which is most often collected in some sort of organically based bedding--becomes the medium that begins the decomposition process. At this stage, as the ammonia begins to form, it is recommended to turn over the manure and pack it down to create the right environment for bacterial fermentation. Be sure that the pile is moist, but not soggy.

Phase II is when the insoluble nitrogen in the feces is broken down to produce more ammonia that in turn feeds the bacteria, which furthers the conversion process. The degree to which the manure becomes bio-available depends on the amount and type of feed given in addition to the age and health of the horses that have processed it. A 30:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen is the goal, so if the compost pile is generating a strong ammonia smell, for example, chances are the carbon to nitrogen ration is too low--a result of feed that is exceptionally high in protein or from having too little soiled bedding added to the mix.

Phase III, the last phase, is when the bacteria release their remaining nitrogen while the fiber part of the compost (which has also finally decomposed) releases carbon dioxide and water to create the desired finished product. If done correctly, parasite eggs or larvae should have been eliminated along with what was once the breeding ground for flies. Plus, the manure pile has now become about half its original size, is odor-free, and is ready to be used as fertilizer.

The optimum conditions for composting would include constructing a three-sided cement or wooden containment area that can be covered with a roof, plastic tarp, or soil to protect it from the elements, which can burn or leach away nutrients. If this is not an option, prepare a six-foot by six-foot open pile in an area that will allow enough room to be enlarged length wise until such time as spreading becomes convenient.

Greene emphasizes checking local zoning regulations. You want to be sure that the pile is sufficiently enough far away from your neighbors, as well as from the barn and house; however, you also want it to be easily accessible for daily use and seasonal hauling. She suggests that for additional information on how to get started with composting, check out The Horse Owner's Guide to Composting, an excellent reference that can be accessed through UVM's Extension Service (

Insect Control
Insects such as stable flies, horseflies, deerflies, horn flies, and mosquitoes can be more than just a nuisance; they can be responsible for a range of problems ranging from leg or hoof concussion caused by repeated stomping, to increased stress levels leading to weight loss, allergic reactions in the form of eosinophilic granulomas (a series of raised bumps usually occurring on the chest, back, or belly), as well as being carriers for a host of serious diseases, including West Nile virus.
When you consider that just one female stable fly, who is estimated to produce 20 batches of 40 to 80 eggs each that typically hatch within 21 to 25 days, will ultimately foster millions of offspring, it is a given that keeping the fly population under control is essential to maintaining the health and welfare of your horse.

Control insect breeding areas Since manure and soiled bedding provide the ideal breeding ground for flies, it is yet another reason to keep your horse's stall as clean as possible. The rest of the barn needs to be kept clean and dry, especially the areas around the water buckets and water tanks. Be sure to fix leaky drains or faucets as soon as possible, as these areas can become prime breeding sites.

Chemical use There are a variety of products designed to control insects, but be sure when using a chemical--either with insecticides intended to kill pests, or repellents developed to keep them away--you follow the directions carefully. Also be careful you don't overdo applications since insects can develop resistance, and the vapors from sprays or mists can irritate your horse's respiratory system.

Here are several insecticide options from which to choose; remember, prevention is still the best means of control:
• Long-term insecticides are applied to areas in which flies tend to congregate, i.e., around feeders, water sources, or flat beams, and, depending upon the specific product, can be effective for up to six weeks.
• Fogs and mists are intended for daily use, and they can be regulated automatically through a designated system.
• Chemical larvicides can be administered orally to horses on a daily basis or on a rotation schedule to kill larvae in fresh manure.
• Baits such as fly strips and sex attractants are useful in high-traffic areas.

Rodent Control
As with insects, rodent control is also a problem that must be addressed in order to maintain a clean barn. Rodents are carriers of disease, and they are resourceful scavengers that can cause significant damage and health problems. Again, prevention is the key, although there are professional exterminators or a number of poisons or traps that will do the job if you already have a problem. Coleman says, "By storing all grain products in impenetrable containers, and by getting a barn cat--your greatest secret weapon--you'll be ahead of the game."

Take-Home Message
Keeping a barn clean is not rocket science; it's a matter of combining common sense with good habits. A barn is a horse's home; his stall is his bed. Make it every day as you would your own. He'll thank you for it every time he feels comfortable enough to lie down for a good night's rest.

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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