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January 14, 2014: Manure Management and Composting, by Fran Bundtzen

My very good friend Fran Bundtzen submitted the following article and pictures, which are on the subject of manure management and composting. She’s a long-time editor of the “Alaska Icelandic Horse Association Newsletter,” a publication that is in form and content up there with all other breed publications.

We share many commonalities, the most important being our love of all horses, and in particular, northern breed horses. She owns two Icelandic mares, Tofa and Drifa, and a Norwegian Fiord named Esten. Another commonality is our obsession (for lack of a better word) with manure management. What’s most impressive about Fran is that she in Interior; Fairbanks, Alaska, where it is extremely cold for a long, long time, which makes for a very short composting season. But she does it – and uses what her horses produce in her gardens. In the following article, she provides dispatch readers with some composting particulars.

My Method of Manure Management and Composting
by Fran Bundtzen

I live near Fairbanks, and our family owns 2 Icelandic mares and 1 Norwegian Fjord Horse gelding. What follows is a description of how I deal with manure collection and composting.

My routine is to clean the pen each morning while the horses are eating their breakfast. I use a heavy duty rake to rake the manure into piles, then an aluminum grain shovel to load the piles into a cart in the summer or a sled in the winter. I like the grain shovel because it is lightweight, has a flat end, and it’s big so I can get a lot with each scoopful. But because it is aluminum, it won’t hold up if used to try to dislodge manure that is frozen in. The rake can usually take care of that, but a heavy grubbing hoe works well to get the really stubborn frozen piles loose.

The sled I use is an Otter II. It is large enough to hold the daily output of my three horses, but not so large that it is difficult for me to pull around. I put a soft, thick rope on it to make pulling easier on the hands. This sled is extremely tough and durable. My mare, Tofa has not been able to put a dent in it, whereas she has destroyed many other cheaper plastic sleds with ease. It can also handle 40° F below weather without breaking.

Tofa and sled

Esten and cart

In the summer, I use a Rubbermaid Big Wheel Fish Hauler. There are cheaper 2 wheeled carts on the market, but they have little wheels that make hauling over uneven ground difficult, the bed is flimsy and hard to dump, and they don’t hold that much. The Rubbermaid cart is a pricey item, but it has become indispensable to me. I use it to haul manure, compost, hay bales, garden plants during spring planting, buckets of garden produce, and garden waste in the fall. The bed is big, so it holds a lot, it is easy to dump, and it is smooth inside with no wheel wells or corrugations, so materials can be shoveled out of it easily. A sluicing with a hose and a quick scrub gets it clean.

I have two homes. In the winter, I live in Goldstream Valley north of the University. In the summer I move farther out of town to my brother’s place. My reason for moving is that my husband, a geologist, is gone all summer doing field work, and out at the family homesite there are more and better horse trails for summer riding. I also have a large garden there. It has a good microclimate with a month longer growing season than at my winter home.

I have a nice setup for composting at the summer place. The horse pen is right below the garden, with an adjoining small pen that I use for a tacking up area. My tack shed is at one end of this smaller pen. At the other end, right next to the garden, is the initial pile where I dump the newly collected manure. With this set-up, I can leave the gate open for bringing the cart through, and if a horse takes advantage of the open gate, he is still penned up, and it is an easy matter to move him back into the main pen when I am done with pen cleaning.

Inside the garden fence, right next to the tacking up area, I have two more piles. One of the piles is finished compost. In the spring, it is 2 years old, and is quite beautiful rich black soil. I use most of it during spring planting as a side dressing in the garden and flowerbeds, and for refreshing soil in containers and the two greenhouses. Once I have moved all of the finished pile to the garden beds, I move the second pile into the empty spot, turning it thoroughly as I move it. At this point it is still early June. I move the pile from the tacking up area (that has been sitting there over the winter) in to the empty spot inside the garden fence. Now I can begin adding the summer’s fresh manure to the empty spot in the tacking up area. During the summer, I turn this pile 2 to 3 times depending on how fast things are going and when it is heating up. The two piles inside the garden are farther along in the composting process and I usually turn them once or twice in the summer. I put garden waste in a separate pile since I find that stems from potato vines etc. compost more slowly than the manure, but eventually it decomposes and makes its way back to the garden. I don’t worry about greens and browns and proportions, etc. My composting process might work faster if it did, but my method is easy and uncomplicated, and whatever I’m doing must be OK because the soil in my garden (which has been planted continuously for over 35 years) improves every year, and my yields are large without using commercial fertilizer. My friend Alys, who lives in Palmer, finds that uncovered compost piles get too wet. It rains a lot there. Here in Fairbanks, we live in a subarctic desert, and our problem is that the piles are usually too dry, so I leave mine uncovered, to collect any rain that falls. Some people here even water their compost piles, but since we don’t have a well and rely on collected rain water or delivered water, I just let whatever happens happen. I never have a shortage of compost, so it works out OK.

At my winter home, things are simpler. I have a small clearing below the horse pen where I am currently dumping horse manure. I spread it no more than a foot or so thick so it won’t get too hot while I’m away for the summer. As a result, it composts very slowly. Sometimes friends come by and take the older, more composted stuff away for their gardens. Sometimes I use it to fill holes in my yard, or to amend soil for my house plants. My long term plan for the manure dumping spot is to someday convert it to a perennial bed to putter around in during my old age. By then I should have a nice thick layer of rich, wonderful soil. So when I’m dumping a sled load of manure at 30 below, I’m dreaming of irises, delphineums, primroses, campanula, trolius, lilies, columbines..... Happy composting!

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