If there is one thing every single horse owner deals with, it's manure - lots of it! Having spent time with Toni Geary from Cheliro Farm I now fully appreciate the importance of composting and how to do it.
It turns out there really isn't that much to it, but a little more than I thought. We've had piles of poo for years, not really 'compost'.
Toni and her family produce organic, free range rare heritage breed Large Black pigs, dairy goats, cattle, poultry, fruit and vegetables using regenerative agriculture. The words of importance there are 'regenerative agriculture and I've asked her to share her wisdom.
Here it is. Have a read. I'm sure you'll find it interesting.
Did you know that the average horse excretes 15 to 20kg of manure per day!! That is a lot of manure to pick up over the course of year…in the order of 7 tonnes! Most people will either sell it in bags to home gardeners or pile it up and dispose of it later, but did you know that this can be turned into an amazing product called compost? Its super, easy to do and you will be able to use it to grow amazing produce for your family or spread it over your paddock to improve the soil and produce nutrient dense grass for your horse.
Why should I make compost with my manure? There are many reasons to compost and everyone will have a different answer to this question. Here are a few of the more important reasons:
- Save money on fertilisers and soil amendments.
- Keep your valuable resource on your property.
- Reduce waste by recycling and keeping it out of landfill.
- Improve your soil.
- Straight manure will burn plants if it is not processed or aged.
- Sequestering carbon.
Making compost is like baking a cake. You will need a recipe, ingredients and tools. If you remember a few basic rules you will have gorgeous, earthy compost in no time at all! Compost is produced by microbes, fungi, arthropods, worms all using oxygen and feasting on the ingredients in your pile. Bacteria start the feast off and produce heat while they are eating. As the temperature in the pile changes so does the type of bacteria that is sitting at the table. Eventually the arthropods, worms and snails all get to eat. The result is the raw ingredients are broken down into rich, crumbly, organic compost. Studies have shown that these microbes also break down the wormers that we give our horses within a few days so by the time the worms and snails show up it is perfectly safe for them to eat. This process also ensures that if you are going to spread it over your paddock it will be safe for your horse to graze afterwards.
All the ingredients for your compost pile are broken up into brown and green and you need a ratio of 4 brown parts to 1 green part to make the best compost. Brown ingredients are carbon-based ingredients such as:
The green ingredients are nitrogen rich ingredients such as:
If your horse is stabled, you should have access to an enormous amount of brown ingredients AND green ingredients. For those whose horses are paddocked, getting your hands on the brown ingredients may be a little trickier. I use animal bedding and hay usually, but if we have no animals in stalls I use leaves and shredded paper from the office. Paper breaks down slowly if it isn’t shredded, but you can even compost branches it just takes a very long time for the microbes to break it down.
There are a few things that shouldn’t be composted in a non-commercial setting. These are:
Dog and cat manure
Fats and oils
Citrus peels and onion peels
Glossy paper and magazines
Sticky labels on fruit and vegetables
Dog and cat manure can contain microorganisms that you don’t want anywhere near your food crops or your horse’s food. Toxoplasmosis and tapeworms to name a couple of nasties. You can compost these in a separate pile if you really want to, but the compost must not be used on food crops.
Meat scraps, dairy and fats/oils can cause your compost heap to become smelly and invite things like mice and rats to visit your heap. They can also contain bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella that might not be killed if your pile doesn’t get hot enough.
Citrus and onion peels can kill the beneficial microorganisms and worms that will break your ingredients down into compost. They contain natural chemicals and are very acidic so are best left out.
Glossy paper and magazines normally have a plastic coating over the paper to give the glossy look. They also commonly contain dyes that can be toxic, and these toxins will end up in your compost and your food.
The sticky labels on our fruit and veg are normally made of plastic and will not break down in your compost pile so should be taken off before the leftovers are thrown into the pile.
Your will need to ensure that your mix has enough moisture in it to allow the microorganisms to move around and enjoy their feast. If it is too dry there will not be enough moisture to form a film around each particle for the microbes to move in. If it is too wet there will not be enough oxygen for the microbes and they will drown. This invites microbes that like anerobic conditions and TADA! You have a stinky, slimy mess! The correct amount of moisture is about the same as you would find in a wrung-out washcloth, just damp through.
Particle size will also play a part in the rate of breakdown of your ingredients into compost. Larger particles take longer to breakdown so do ingredients with more carbon or cellulose such as twigs and sticks. If you want to use these types of ingredients it is best if they are put through a chipper or broken into smaller pieces. If you don’t then you may end up with compost that has lots of twigs and sticks in it which will make it hard to spread over a paddock or work within your garden.
Aeration…..the actual hard part. All compost piles need to be aerated to provide oxygen for the microbes. Aeration will provide lots of air pockets in the pile so the as the pile heats up the escaping heat creates a cycle of convection by drawing the cooler, denser air into the pile and supplying the microbes with oxygen. It also allows the particles to be separated slightly so the microbes can access them easier and break them down quicker.
There are a few ways to make compost. You can buy bins and barrels that are specifically designed for making compost. These normally make the process of aeration easy by allowing you to turn a handle or tumble the bin instead of using a fork to aerate your pile. You can build a basic 3 bay compost area out of pallets or other materials or you can just heap it into a pile. It doesn’t matter which one you choose; they will all produce amazing compost!
The purpose-built tumblers are excellent for making small amounts of compost and are easy to use. You add your green and brown ingredients at the ratio of 1 to 4 parts. Make sure your mixture is damp, about as damp as a wrung-out cloth, and shut the door. Every few days give the handle a few turns. It will take around 10 – 12 weeks to get your compost using a tumbler.
Compost bins are very similar but not quite as easy as a tumbler. For this method you layer your ingredients alternating green and brown evenly. For this method you can use cold composting – no aeration, but this will not destroy any weed seeds or degrade wormers like hot composting does. It will also take a month or so longer for the same amount of compost you would get using the hot method. If you would like to use a bin to hot compost you will need to aerate your pile. To do this you can remove the bin and turn it overusing a fork and then put it back in the bin or you can make a purpose-built DIY aerator. There are heaps of ideas on the internet for instructions on how to build one.
We use piles and I have a 3-bay composter in my vegetable garden. For both, you layer the brown and green ingredients remembering you need to have a pile that is at least 1m x 1m x 1m to generate the heat needed to kill weed seeds and degrade medicines and wormers. Try not to have your pile too high or it may be too hard to regulate the moisture levels and aeration becomes a VERY big deal. Remember that you will need to have a ratio of 1 part green nitrogen based ingredients to 3 parts brown carbon rich ingredients.
The 3-bay method makes it easy. 1 bay has the compost ready to use, 1 bay has compost in the process of maturing and the last bay is where you are layering all the material as you gather it up. You can also have a spare bay to turn the maturing compost into as you aerate it. Aeration is done by forking all the ingredients out of the bay and then forking them back in. You can also use a DIY aerator that mixes the ingredients in situ which makes it a bit easier on your back. Make sure you cover your pile with sheet of old ply or something that will keep too much rain out and the right amount of moisture in. It will also ensure that your microbes are warm in winter and shaded from too much sun in summer.
There are a few ways to tell if your compost is ready. It should smell earthy, like soil, so it should not smell of ammonia or have any nasty smells. It should be crumbly, like dry biscuit crumbs. You should not be able to discern any of the original material such as straw or manure. Some of the larger material if you have included it such as branches or sticks may still be there but should be brittle and easy broken. Your pile, if you are using this method, should have shrunk to around half its original size and it should no longer be hot, returning to around air temperature.
There are many ways to use your compost once it is mature. You can spread it over your garden beds prior to planting and dig it through, using it as a soil amendment and fertilizer. It will also help maintain the pH of your soil. You can layer it reasonably thick around plants to act as a mulch to prevent weeds and conserve moisture. It can be also be used under another type of mulch such as straw or cane mulch to help retain moisture. You can spread it over your paddocks to act as a soil conditioner and fertilizer.
Making compost from your manure is a win/win for everyone. It is easy to do, you will be helping the environment by reducing landfill, sequestering carbon and improving your soils. You will be improving the health of your horse and your family by producing nutrient dense food cheaply from ingredients that would normally be discarded.
Toni Geary Cheliro Farm
You can find out more about Toni and her family farm on her Facebook Page: Cheliro Farm
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