The term “horse manure” often gets thrown out as a term of derision, but not by Mike Hittinger. When he sees horse manure, he sees treasure.
Even though it can be a pain to deal with, horse manure is a great resource for building up soil and many people are willing to pay for it, Hittinger, a coordinator with the North West Alliance Conservation Initiative, told a recent equine meeting here.
But it must be properly managed, he said, because manure piles can also be breeding grounds for flies, parasites, pathogens and weeds.
Managing manure properly is even more important because many horse owners are located close to each other and to urban areas, said Hittinger.
“It’s almost like having a pile of fertilizer there. I think if everyone saw a pile of fertilizer sitting in a heap with rain falling on it and everything washing off of it, they’d have a small conniption fit and be on the horn to Alberta Environment,” he said. “In essence, that’s what piles of manure are – they’re a pile of nutrients.”
Manure can be a benefit to pastures, he said. Adding manure to poor soil helps increase microbial activity and can restore soil to a healthy level. He encouraged his audience to feed their horses on pasture, and keep some winter pasture. Feeding on poorer soil areas, such as on a hilltop, can make good use of manure. “Just put the feeder on your poorer soil,” said Hittinger.
Feeding outside in the winter can help both pastures and horse health. Horses will be healthier since they are not around their own parasites or feces, he said. Portable shelters and electric fencing can be used to make winter feeding easier. Moving feeders around can help prevent manure accumulation, while spreading manure around on the pasture.
Composting manure is another way to reduce the volume of manure while making use of the nutrients.
“Composting is an active process that requires monitoring and management,” said Hittinger. “It’s not the act of rotting; it’s the act of microbial breakdown.”
Proper composting requires air, Hittinger stressed. “It’s the aerobic microorganisms that break down the manure. When the pile seals off, the pile goes anaerobic and you don’t have break down any more, you just have pickling.” Turning a compost pile is key to getting the process to work. Bedding material added to the compost adds bulk which will allow quicker breakdown.
Hittinger said compost works best with a moisture level of about 50 per cent. “If you can squeeze it and make a ball out of it, that’s about 50 per cent water.”
He said composting is most effective at 55 to 65 C and should be turned when the temperature reaches 70 C. This can be measured using a compost thermometer.
A pile of about one cubic metre is big enough to hold its own heat and allow composting year-round, said Hittinger.
The ideal compost pile is one part manure to two parts bedding, he said. Finished compost should smell earthy and resemble peat moss in texture and uniformity.