Horse Manure - Alternative Bedding for Better Manure Composting (2008)

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Using an alternative bedding source instead of conventional materials such as shavings or straw, can be a great way to reduce the total volume of waste material coming out of your barn each day. Studies have shown that by using products such as wood pellet bedding, you can reduce the carbon levels in your compost by almost 40% and the total daily volume by 50%. There are a number of options available for livestock owners to help minimize waste produced and prevent environmental contamination due to woodwaste.

Woodwaste products include shavings, hog fuel, tree bark, wood chips and other forms of broken wood. When saturated with direct rainfall it can produce a toxic leachate that pollutes watercourses at low concentrations and depletes oxygen levels in surface waters. Additionally, woodwaste leachate can tie up nitrogen (N) in the soil and make it unavailable for plant growth. Some of the alternatives to woodwaste materials include rubber mats, shredded newspaper/cardboard or wood pellet bedding.

Rubber Mats

One option that is becoming more and more popular with horse owners is the use of rubber mats. They lie in the bottom of the stall and provide the cushioning that horse owners want for their animals, but minimize or eliminate the amount of shavings needed in the stalls. They can be more expensive than other bedding materials, but the savings that will result in the long run will be worth the initial cost. Rubber mats will also cut your stall cleaning time, reduce airborne dust, reduce the risk of thrush and other hoof problems and are easy to install.

Shredded Newspaper/Cardboard

Shredded newspaper or cardboard is another great option for bedding. It is highly absorbent, composts very well and is ecologically sound. Just ask your local newspaper if they have any shredded roll ends that they would like to donate. Most newspapers utilize vegetable-based inks, but it is worth asking, as chemical-based inks are undesirable for compost systems.

Wood Pellet Bedding

Another option that is gaining popularity is the use of wood pellet bedding. Wood pellets are a byproduct of the lumber industry and consist of wood fibres that have been sorted by size, compressed, heat treated and sterilized to remove tars, oils, hydrocarbons and other allergens. When water is added to the pellets they expand in size and can absorb 9 times more liquid than regular shavings. Using wood pellets can reduce the amount of waste you are removing from your barn and lower the costs of stall bedding.

In addition, wood pellet bedding composts much quicker than shavings or straw which often do not fully compost or take a long time to decompose. As wood pellets expand with use, the product that ends up in the compost system has a much smaller particle size that breaks down quickly and easily.

The Art of Using Wood Pellet Bedding

Using wood pellet bedding is indeed an art form as many of the “converted” will tell you. It definitely takes a bit of practice to use wood pellets well and you really do need to give yourself some time to get used to them. The following tips should help you to transition smoothly and quickly.

Purchasing the Bedding

Many local feed stores and businesses that sell fuel for wood stoves will sell bags of wood pellet bedding. The product is generally sold by the bag and in many places if you buy a pallet (which contains about 50 bags) the price per bag will be cheaper. There are a number of brands available, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, so you will have to experiment to figure out which one will work best for you. Make sure you find a brand that is guaranteed for use in the livestock or horse industry. It is recommended to find brands that use organic softwood lumber, restrict particle size to reduce dust, disallow hardwood materials that can be toxic for use with horses and limit the use of bark or knots.

Getting Started

In general, you will need between 4 and 7 bags to get a 12 x 12 stall started, depending on how deep you like to bed your animals. Keep in mind that the product continues to expand as you use it so if it looks a little sparse in the beginning it will fluff up considerably over the first week of use.

Pour a couple of bags of the pellets into your wheelbarrow and add enough water to dampen all of the pellets. Watering the bedding prior to putting it in your stalls will help the wood pellets to expand more effectively, absorb more and last much longer. Pre-watering also stops the animal from crushing the pellets or slipping. Once the pellets have been sufficiently watered, leave the wheel barrow for at least one hour to allow the pellets to expand. If only a small amount of expansion has occurred add more water and wait for a bit longer.

Once the pellets look like they are expanding and are ‘sawdust-like’ put them in the stall and repeat the process until you are happy with the thickness of the bedding. Multiple wheelbarrows makes this process much quicker and easier and if you have a larger wheelbarrow you may be able to do more than 2 bags at once.

Stall Cleaning

Cleaning your barn is going to be a little different than if you use shavings and if you have used scoopable cat litter before you will notice the similarities. The urine will clump into a puck-like shape, which you can easily scoop out. Keep in mind that sometimes the urine ‘puck’ will break apart so just take out any of the solid parts and leave the rest in the stall. The moisture from the excess urine will help the product to continue expanding. Odour should not be an issue as pine is a natural deodorizer; however, if you are really concerned there are deodorizing products available for purchase from many retail outlets.

Once you have picked out the manure and urine, thoroughly mix the bedding in the stall and pull the fresh bedding in from the side of the stall to the middle. If the bedding seems a bit dusty then sprinkle it with some water. This can be done frequently, as it will help the bedding to continue expanding.

You will need to add approximately 1-2 bags of fresh bedding to your stalls each week using the process outlined above. It is helpful to get the new bedding started in a separate wheelbarrow while you clean the stalls so that it is ready to add when you are finished cleaning. You will probably want to completely strip and restart each stall every 2-3 months, which will give the stalls time to air out and disinfect properly.

For more information on composting, pasture management or alternative bedding please contact the Manure Maiden at the Langley Environmental Partners Society.

Good luck and happy composting!

Andrea Lawseth B.Sc. (Agro), A.Ag.
Agricultural Stewardship Coordinator
Langley Environmental Partners Society
Phone: 604-532-3515

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