Once, when many families had their own vegetable gardens and compost heaps, there were plenty of takers for horse manure.
Horses doing their business on suburban streets were rarely a problem, because plenty of householders were prepared to race out with a shovel to collect the bountiful baubles.
Horse manure contains plenty of fibre, making it an excellent soil conditioner. However, it doesn’t rate right at the top of the Pantheon of Poo. That honour belongs to chicken manure – indeed, any bird droppings.
Emeritus Professor of Soil Science John Walker says bird droppings are top of the heap for good reason. Horses – indeed all mammals – produce both urine and dung. Mammals secrete most of their nitrogen, potassium and sulphur through their pee, meaning their droppings are almost always deficient in these key elements.
Birds, on the other hand, excrete through one hole only, meaning all these essential exhaust nutrients are rolled into one neat product.
Horse dung may have its shortcomings, but it has also received some bad press. Sadly, society now moves way too fast for the humble horse poo.
The scenario is all too common: A grateful horse owner who is not in a position to use harrows finds a friend to take away a few bags of freshly collected horse droppings. They dig it into their garden, then complain to the horse lover a few months later that it was full of weeds. They rarely come back for more.
Through all this, nobody appears to have told horses that demand for their nifty nuggets has fallen away. They just keep on producing them at an average of 15 or so dollops a day. This has given rise to what economists call a glut. And, to use business parlance again, there’s nothing worse than an oversupply in a bearish market.
Horse dung has been much maligned because people are bypassing the one crucial step that every keen vegetable gardener knows about: Composting.
Composting is the process whereby naturally occurring microbes break down organic matter. A perfect compost is a soil-like material rich in nutrients and full of roughage which, when added to the garden, improves soil structure and plant health.
The critical thing is overcoming the weed problem. Yes, seeds do pass intact through a horse’s digestive system and will grow if given the opportunity. No self-respecting weed seed would ignore the opportunity provided by anyone who digs them straight into the soil.
The solution is heat. Your consummate composter is aiming to fry those pesky seeds. One of the byproducts of composting is heat, and, if enough is created for long enough, it will kill any seeds and pathogens, providing you with a weed-free compost.
Professor Walker says 80deg Celsius is considered the mark at which you’ll achieve this. However, he says it is not always easy to achieve, and some trial and error may be required to get your composting on a roll.
So what do you need to do?
Create a heap that’s got the right balance of material, moisture, and any added nutrients to encourage a healthy growth in the number of micro-organisms that will compost it. Crucially, it needs to be big enough for the heat produced by this process to get to critical temperature, and stay there for two, even three weeks. You’ve also got to allow air to get to the heart so your composting will occur with air (aerobically) and not without air (anaerobically).
Let’s assume you’re not really wanting to invest in building or buying compost bins, nor be too scientific about how much fertiliser to add. After all, we’re making compost, not baking a cake!
Pick an area well away from anywhere where odour might be a problem. No neighbour wants a compost heap under their kitchen window. Having said that, a well-built heap should not generate an unpleasant smell.
You’re going to build a heap with a base about 2m across. Don’t put any covering on the ground, as worms and microbes will be prevented from entering your heap from the earth. Ideally, you need room beside it for a second, third, even fourth heap, for reasons we’ll explain later.
If you’ve got some old netting around, form 2m rings with that to contain your heap. You’ll get a better-shaped pile that way, with a bigger heart, which is where the greatest heat will accumulate.
Start shoveling in your horse manure. You’re aiming for a final height of over a metre. You need not build it all at once, but remember that the high temperatures you need won’t be achieved until your pile has a decent heart.
Build an even layer of about 15cm. If it’s dry, get your hose and spray water on until the dung is damp, but not soaking wet. If it’s too dry, the composting process will be slowed and the big heat build-up you need just won’t happen.
Get some general purpose fertilizer, preferably with a healthy level or nitrogen, and sprinkle a handful over the dung. (Professor Walker’s personal favourite among general fertilisers is Nitrophoska Blue Extra). Eliminate fertiliser at your peril: A shortage of nitrogen is a common cause of slow or ineffective composting.
Now you need a layer of green matter. Lawn clippings are great, but you can use leaves, hedge clippings, vegetable scraps, old hay and the like. This layer should be a little deeper, as the final heap needs to be at least 50 per cent green matter.
Then repeat the layer of horse manure and a sprinkling of fertilizer, paying attention to the moisture content as you go.
If you’re tempted not to add any fertiliser, bear in mind that any deficiencies in your soil will show in your plant matter as well as your horse dung, and, ultimately, your compost. It’s a chance to break that cycle.
If you’re putting in old stable bedding material, you’ve scored a bonus. Contained in this will be urine, which is rich in potassium, nitrogen and sulphur, so you may not need to correct for any deficiencies. However, if the stable material is sawdust or wood shavings, these use large amounts of nitrogen in breaking down and will nearly always create a deficiency. This being the case, add a rich nitrogen-based fertilizer as you go.
Some people like to add sprinklings of lime to their compost heap. This lowers the acidity, creating a better environment for the microbes to multiply. Others throw in a few shovelfuls of dirt to seed the heap with the right naturally occurring soil microbes
Horse manure, being quite light and fibrous, will help encourage all-important airflow through the pile. The heat generated by your pile rises and this encourages cooler fresh air to be sucked in from the base. Some people help air to get to the centre of their heap by drilling holes in a length of PVC pipe and placing it upright in the middle of their heap.
An even simpler way is to get a strong stick or crowbar and make three or four ventilation holes. See if you can push right to the bottom, work it around a little, and withdraw it carefully.
If all goes well, the centre of your heap should start composting rapidly. If the process seems sluggish, chances are your heap is lacking in either nitrogen, water, or both.
If possible, cover your heap with old sacks or horse covers. These will help retain heat, keep it from drying out, and prevent your heap getting too wet from rain.
Correct moisture is critical for success. Too much and you run the risk of your heap staying too cool and producing gloop. Too little and the whole process will be slowed and, again, you’ll have too little heat. If you can pick up a handful and squeeze water out, your heap is too damp. If it’s getting too dry, remove your covers and add water. Some trial and error will be needed to get it just right.
By now, your heap will be composting furiously in the centre, with air-breathing microbes working day and night on your behalf.
The outside won’t be composting near as well, as the heat cannot build up the same.
You thus need to turn the heap three or four weeks after you built it. This is why you’ve placed it somewhere with space beside it.
You shovel the heap across, ensuring that the outside of the old heap forms the inside of the new one. While doing this, make sure the material is not too dry, and add water if necessary. The material should now be much darker and showing clear signs of breaking down.
Get your stick or crowbar and create new ventilation holes, cover it again, and the process will continue in earnest. About six weeks later, your magnificent compost will be ready to unveil to the world.
The results will be even better if you turn the heap a third time, at intervals of three or four weeks, but if you provide the right mix and conditions, you should get useable compost with one turning. Essentially, the more times you can turn it at these intervals, the better the end product. If you’ve got a tractor and bucket, you’ve got no excuse.
If you can’t use your compost straight away, keep it covered and a little damp.
So what should you do with your compost? Let your friends marvel at your creation of odour-free, fibre-rich living earth. Many will be so impressed they’ll want some for their own gardens, but only after they’ve gathered some of the raw material from your paddocks for the next batch!
Finally, a reminder that the dung you take off a paddock is gradually robbing the soil of its nutrients. Don’t forget to fertilise, even if you lease your paddocks. Otherwise, it’s your horse you’re shortchanging.
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz on June 25, 2006