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  • Writer's pictureDyan Vorster

Black Gold

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

“Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

View from our muckheap

Mucking out stalls is an inescapable fact of barn life. In truth, I admit to enjoying the quiet rhythm of this daily chore. There is a deep satisfaction in seeing the stalls swept clean and comfortably bedded down, with everything in its place and a place for everything!

The average horse produces 50lbs of manure each day, which adds up to around 9 tons a year (that’s not even accounting for the bedding that goes with it). This makes disposing of your manure and dirty bedding a significant factor when planning the layout of your barn. Choosing the position of your muckheap and managing it appropriately will help to protect the health of your horses and your land.

When selecting a site, we wanted our muckheap to be close enough to the yard for ease of use (moving a wheelbarrow full of manure is no joke), but not so close that flies would become an issue. We also had to consider that larvae from hatching parasites can wriggle up to 3m away from dung piles. This meant that its location had to be at least 3m from the closest pasture and fenced off to keep the horses out. Finally, we had to consider our chosen sites proximity to our well and pond (by law manure piles must be at least 10m from the closest watercourse and 50m from a well or spring that supplies human consumption); effluent – the stinky black water that leaches from manure piles – can cause serious pollution if it is allowed to enter a watercourse.

Our second consideration was management. It is important to have tractor and trailer access to your heap (for obvious reasons). And, unless you build your heap against a natural boundary to keep it contained, you will need to erect one. A sprawling heap is an inefficient use of space, so we chose a spot that already had a thick blackberry hedge on one side and created a second retaining wall by grading an earthen bank that could also serve as a ramp. We then laid a walkway up the ramp to allow for easier wheelbarrow access. Strategically dumping the manure from the bank, condensing it, and trampling it to reduce the volume, we slowly built our heap outward.

Composting is a form of waste disposal where organic waste decomposes naturally under oxygen-rich conditions. The organic materials are broken down by earthworms, bacteria and other organisms that live in soil. Most composting involves the addition of water and oxygen - which occurs by turning the compost - to speed up the overall process. However, the composting process can occur without any human involvement.

If you don’t have the equipment to turn your manure pile regularly (we don’t), it should be well built and densely packed so that it retains moisture and so that the internal temperature can build up to the point of killing parasite eggs and larvae. This will also help it to break down much faster. To be safe, allow your pile to compost for 12 months before using it as fertilizer on your paddocks.

Manure management is as old as human history. Done well, it benefits the farmer and the ecosystem. Proper manure management improves water quality by preventing pollutants from migrating to surface and ground waters and increase the soil's water-holding capacity. Adding compost to the land recycles the nutrients through the soil, reducing the use of expensive commercial (inorganic) fertilizers, and improving soil quality through the addition of organic materials, "so that those who live after may have clean earth to till".

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