Managing manure is a huge part of any horse facility. I do live in the traditional historic village of Agua Fria which specifically allows small-scale agricultural activities. My immediate neighbors still have chickens, goats and pot-bellied pigs even if the number of horses in Agua Fria has dropped by a factor of ten, from 150 to about 15 over the last decade. BUT volume, odor, insect pests, toxic run-off all become much more of an issue when keeping horses in an increasing sub-urban/urban area.
Agua Fria is surrounded by the City of Santa Fe and our current mayor and his cronies suffer from ignorance, greed and arrogance in about equal parts. This summer, permits for at least 6,000 buildings all within 15 minutes drive of my home were granted. That means that my bubble of my traditional historic community is surrounded by an ever-increasing number of irritable entitled people who target anyone around them doing anything different.
When I first inherited this piece of property from my mother in 20211, I participated in a composting workshop given by Elaine Ingham, the Compost Queen. I got to look at the microbiome of my soil in the lab at the Santa Fe Community College. The view through the microscope showing nothing but a handful of anaerobic bacteria was sobering but not unusual in this high dry desert climate. The piles of dried unchanged wood chips, horse, goat and chicken manure that have accumulated on my three acres were more evidence of just how much climate challenges efforts to manage the daily offerings of animal husbandry.
My first step was to introduce some beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes and what ever other microscopic beneficial contributors to the soil microbiome I could find. Paul Stamets’ symbiotic fungi spores are still an easy addition to the soil microbiome. I also purchased a combination of saw-dust based mushroom cultures that Fungi Perfecti sold as beneficial additions to gardens and compost piles. Inky caps are the one strain that adapted to my circumstances.
Breaking down organic material into fertile soil requires oxygen which is in comparatively short supply at 7,000 feet above sea level. Composting also requires water in a climate that has averaged less than 15 inches a year of rain over a thirty year period and where atmospheric humidity averages less than 20% during the winter and stays below 50% even during our brief monsoon season.
The human component to manure management is labor. Picking up manure out of the horse pens is inescapable. But turning the resulting piles of manure so that they maintain the correct amount of water and oxygen that allows the micro-biome to thrive does not have to be done by human hands.
I decided to integrate earth worms into my manure management. They are busy little fellows and their constant churning of the manure pile keeps it aerated. Their presence tells me if there is sufficient water in the pile. And they are great inoculators as they carry the entire micro-biome in their guts as they eat their way through the soil.
I have been experimenting with different ways of organizing worm-beds. I have several leaky metal water troughs that I have filled with manure and left to stand under the drip lines of the chicken house. Water catchment is a big part of water management in the desert. Slowing down the rainfall enough so that it soaks into the soil makes a huge difference in soil health over the long run.
My metal troughs are not efficient enough to process the sixty pounds of manure each horse produces each day. The top tends to get too dry and the bottom few inches tend to get stagnant and stinky. They serve well enough to slow down the runoff and produce enough worms to keep the chickens happily scratching and supplementing their diet with fresh wriggly worms.
I also have to wheel-barrow the manure from the horse pens to the trough and lift it up to get it in. In the interests of minimizing my labor, I have set up straw-bale worm-beds at the end of my horse runs. I only have to pick up and move the manure once. I can easily any dump any dirty water from the water buckets into the worm bed, adding small amounts of water on a daily basis to maintain the humidity with out drowning the pile.
The bed is composting away, maintaining a temperature between 120o and 140o Farenheit, the ideal range on my compost thermometer. The surface of the worm bed is developing what my father called a ‘dust mulch’. When bacteria are exposed to a low-humidity environment, they encase themselves with a hydro-phobic coating as they go into stasis.
In the desert, this hydrophobic coating usually aggravates run-off. Raindrops do not soak into the dirt, so the bacteria get washed to where ever the water pools and they have a chance to grow. But when the surface of my worm-bed is covered with bacteria in stasis, their hydrophobic coating helps to minimize evaporation, keeping any water in the bed instead of letting escape.
So far, I have been pleased. The worm-bed is working so well it has enough healthy fungi to produce crops of Inky Caps in November! Theoretically, having friendly fungi that break down fibers like cellulose and pectin should reduce the volume of manure by as much as 90%. And the end product can be a valuable amendment to soil for gardeners who want a healthy soil micro-biome here in the high desert.
Asad is also pleased, as he can keep a proprietary eye on his manure piles. In a natural environment, free-roaming stallions mark their territory with their manure. Stallion will drop a pile of manure on top of their mares and foals manure piles. They will also establish piles of dropping to establish the dimensions of their normal range of movement and inform other herds of where they are.
Removing all of his manure piles from Asad’s pen is an insult to his efforts to manage his environment. Leaving him a small pile in his chosen spot respects his need to mark his territory. Putting the rest of it where he can see it while I manage the issues of flies, smell and run off is the best compromise I have come up with that respects both human and horse world views.