Written by: Mathew MacLean and Nadine Abrams
These farm owners are taking a proactive approach to manure management.
Kathy Fremes is the owner and manager of Country Hill Farm in Stouffville, ON, located 45 minutes northeast of Toronto on 30 acres of the Oak Ridges Moraine. Country Hill is home to 25 horses, and in 2009 received the Ontario Equestrian Federation’s ‘Just Add Horses’ Environment Award, presented to the equine facility owner who has demonstrated an active approach to conserving the environment.
Manure and stall residue is generally a problem for farm owners. Not dense enough in nutrients to be a high-value fertilizer, many facilities have to pay to have it removed from their operations. At Country Hill Farm, this waste is turned into a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer through composting which decomposes organic matter, shrinking the volume and making it more nutrient-dense. Fremes, a member of the steering committee of Equine Guelph’s Healthy Lands for Healthy Horses stewardship program, says, “I still want to further reduce my carbon hoofprint, and there is grant money out there to help us to achieve that goal, such as the Environmental Farm Plan.”
Here is Freme’s successful composting recipe, from horse to hay. First, to reduce the amount of bedding material used and still provide comfort for the horses, Fremes lines each stall with rubber mats. In addition, she does not use all of her 19 stalls, as many of her herd live outdoors 24/7. The manure from the paddocks, waste hay, and material from mucking out the stables is deposited into one of two stalls in a covered storage area, where the composting begins. Here it will be left to decompose for about six months, being turned over periodically to provide oxygen to the busy microbes working throughout the pile. When it is sufficiently decomposed and resembles nutrient-rich soil, the compost is used on a nearby hayfield, to top-dress summer paddocks, and enrich the soil in extensive vegetable and flower gardens. This compost was also used for planting hundreds of trees and shrubs to reduce the erosion on the farm and act as wind breaks.
Careful storage and handling of manure is key to protecting the environment. Freme’s storage area has an impermeable concrete pad with two U-shaped stalls of 90 interlocking 6’ by 2’ by 3’ wide concrete blocks, which also act as a retaining wall for the extension of Fremes’ arena. “We had to create a retaining wall anyhow, so I thought if we were going to all this expense we might as well do the manure storage,” says Fremes, adding “It was a lucky guess that I managed to build it larger than we actually needed, because we did not have a nutrient management strategy at that time. I would advise anyone embarking on such a project to build bigger than your actual present-day needs to accommodate future expansion.”
Each storage stall is roughly 35’ long by 18’ wide and 8’ deep and can contain more than a full year’s worth of manure if both are used. “If we don’t need both bins for manure, then we can store bulk shavings that we use for bedding in the empty one,” said Fremes.
The manure storage is covered and sheltered from precipitation. This prevents water contamination, as uncovered manure piles are exposed to the weather, and in some cases, topography and nearby buildings can affect wind currents, resulting in even more precipitation landing on these piles. For example, snow will accumulate on the lee side of a building and if a manure pile is there, the increased runoff of rain or snow will pollute nearby surface water or seep into the ground, taking bacteria and nutrients with it. The bacteria can create human and animal health problems, and the nutrients can contaminate groundwater, making it unsafe to drink. In surface water, excess nutrients create algae blooms which put considerable stress on aquatic species by lowering dissolved oxygen levels. The $12,000 fabric roof over Freme’s solid manure storage virtually eliminates manure pile runoff and was almost entirely funded with government grants.
The cost for a manure storage facility can range significantly, depending on the farm’s needs, size of the operation, and labour and material costs. Based on manure storage facilities completed in 2010 by landowners in the Greater Toronto Area, the cost varied significantly, ranging from $6-17 per square metre. The size and location of your facility will be based on the results of your Nutrient Management Strategy (NMS). The number of livestock on the farm, topography of the land, the amount of pasture available to spread the manure and the presence of significant natural features nearby such as a creek or wetland are just some of the contributing factors.
At Hop Hill Stables in Uxbridge, ON, owner Michael Jewett also constructed a modern 2,150 sq.ft. covered manure storage facility adjacent to their barn. Phase two of his manure management plan involves a composting system using a series of windrows. Windrow composting is the production of compost by piling organic matter such as animal manure in long rows on level ground. In the case of Hop Hill, the farm’s tractor is used to sculpt the manure into windrows. It is then turned every two days initially and then approximately once a week. The windrow is simultaneously watered via a compost turner attached to the back of the tractor which has built-in nozzles attached to a 1,500-gallon tank. Acquired from a maple syrup equipment supplier, it is filled using “recycled” rainwater out of the cistern, collected off the arena roof. (A good watering from a hose works, as well.) The windrows are also monitored for temperature, as the optimal temperature to kill pathogenic organisms and undesirable weed seeds is 130°F to 160°F. The turning process is repeated for approximately 10 to 12 weeks, or until the manure has been suitably composted for application to the pasture. There is no definitive rule, but finished compost should be dark in color and have an earthy smell.
It is estimated that Hop Hill Stables produces 400 tons of manure each year, providing a considerable amount of invaluable nutrients for other uses around the property. Not only can composted manure help to improve pasture yield, but extra product can be applied to lawn and garden areas, prompting some equine establishments to bag and sell their leftovers as a revenue generator.
“Every horse farm should look at their manure as a resource,” recommends Jewett. “Even if a properly designed manure storage facility is not in the budget, I would encourage people to look at the location of their manure storage and how they can reduce the risk of runoff contaminating local water resources.” For example, make sure your manure pile is not located “up-hill” from your well or local creek. Manure storage of any type should be a minimum of 90 metres away from a private well and greater than 300 metres away from any municipal well (numbers vary in the Nutrient Management Act). Installing eavestroughs to divert clean water from building roofs away from the manure pile can help; it may be as simple as putting an extension on an existing downspout. Another option is tarping your manure pile, as this will speed up composting and reduce runoff, which reduces the nutrient content of your manure.
To find out more about stewardship programs available in your area, contact your provincial Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada branch. For more information about financial and technical assistance programs for manure management, visit Healthy Lands for Healthy Horses at www.equineguelph.ca/healthylands.php. To learn about preparing a Nutrient Management Strategy for your farm, go to www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/nm/strategy.html.