Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My Resident Foxes :-)

Disclaimer: this post has nothing to do with farm management!

We have always had occasional fox sightings on the farm, including a wonderful morning of watching a momma fox pounce on mole after mole in the pasture and take them back to her den. This winter, for the first time, two foxes have been hanging around regularly enough that I see them several times a week. I've seen the horses watch them race through the pasture. I've seen them flee from the dry lot when I go out to feed the horses. I've surprised them in my barn aisle a few times coming back from a ride. One even jumped out of the Hay Hut as I approached one cold, rainy day! (I've also found bunny halves in my manure pile, but I can live with that.)

A couple of days ago I walked out to the barn to tack up for a ride and saw a furry red blob in the trees behind the barn. I ran back inside for my camera and crept up again, snapping some pics before going out to the pasture to catch the pony.

Unfortunately I scared him/her away walking out to the pasture, but once there I couldn't believe my eyes...the second fox was also curled up in an adorable red ball, in the pasture with the horses! I felt pretty guilty disturbing their nap time (the pony was lying down too!) but I had a jumping lesson to get to.

I really love seeing them and hope they stick around. I have no idea if they are a mated pair but I do hope there are cubs in the spring!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Snow Days

Snow is beautiful but it certainly creates some challenges for horsekeeping! I consider myself lucky that here in the Mid-Atlantic we usually only get a handful of significant snowfalls each winter. Although that does mean that rather than sticking to a set routine, I get to agonize anew every time over how to manage the horses and handle the aftermath!

Although I started out keeping my horses in during the day in summer and in during the night in winter, with the construction of my dry lot I can now stall my horses as little as possible without them demolishing the pasture. So the past couple of winters I've avoided stalling almost entirely by closing them in the dry lot overnight and opening the gate to one section of the pasture during the day. This has worked out really well, as it significantly reduces my chore time (especially in the cold, dark mornings before work, when all I have to do is open a gate) and allows the horses to be out moving around as much as possible. Knowing that they have a shed to retreat to in bad weather, I never have to worry about them. I love love love my dry lot! (See more on its construction here.) As well as being generally useful and wonderful, my dry lot gives me more turnout options during snowy weather. In this post I discuss the factors I consider when managing my horses during snow and cold weather.

Horse comfort: Some people tend to project their temperature preferences on their horses. "If I'm cold with a sweater and coat on, Dobbin needs a heavy blanket and a hood and to stay inside tonight!" Keep in mind that horses are designed to handle cold weather much better than humans. Their respiratory system, digestive system, insulating coats, and sheer muscle mass all enable them to be comfortable outside at temperatures that would leave most of us wanting to curl up in front of a cozy fireplace. They may even be warmer outside moving around than stuck in a small box in the barn. Keep in mind that if you do turn out in cold weather, it's very important that they have shelter from rain and wind as well as ample hay to fuel the internal furnace.

As far as blanketing, while I do own turnout sheets and medium-weight turnout blankets for each of my horses, I leave my unclipped horses naked unless they actually need clothes. As temperatures start to drop in the fall, I monitor their comfort every chilly morning. If they seem happy and comfortable, I let them stay au naturale. If they are running around to stay warm, huddling in the shelter, losing weight, or shivering, they need to be blanketed appropriately! (Too much blanketing is, in my opinion, worse than not enough because the horse can sweat and then become dangerously chilled.)

Mr. F may look cold with his frost-tipped mane, but he's happy, healthy, and in great weight. He hasn't worn a blanket in two years, since he retired and stopped needing to be clipped. He's turning 23 this year and I will continue to evaluate as his needs change with age.
On the other hand, I found my pony shivering this fall, even before I clipped her, and she now basically lives in a medium with a hood. Although she's half Welsh, she's also half Thoroughbred and tends to be a little more sensitive. She also needs to gain a few pounds so I don't want her shivering off any calories. Plus she has a bib clip now to reduce sweating during work. All of these things mean she needs clothes, and I'm happy to provide them!
Of course, the clipped ones are blanketed proactively because I've removed one of their main natural defenses against the cold. Just last week I purchased an off-track Thoroughbred that came up from Florida and is clipped to the bone, nose to toes. I happen to own a heavy turnout blanket in his size and he may be the first horse on my property to ever wear a heavy, if temperatures drop further. (Usually it doesn't get cold enough here for heavies for unclipped or partially clipped horses, though I might very rarely layer sheets and mediums if necessary. In fact, last night the weather surprised me by dropping to 12 degrees and he was still comfortable in his medium with a hood.)

This won't apply to those poor people who don't have a long-ear in their life 😉, but Dominick the Donkey also gets blanketed during winter precipitation because as a desert animal, his coat lacks the waterproofing oils of the horses. This leads to adorable morning scenes like the icicle donkey below:

Footing: A bigger risk in my mind than cold horses is horses running around on dangerous footing. Again, fresh snow is not usually a big deal, especially if it's a nice, powdery, dry snow. The horses love to play in it!

Nothing like fresh powdery snow to help show off that nice big trot...

...until you take a bad step and faceplant in a drift. Okay, he's not the most graceful horse in the world but he came out of it with no harm done.
Unfortunately here in the Mid-Atlantic our snow is more commonly the wet and heavy type that balls up in the horses' feet and then hardens into lumpy ice the next day. You also have to worry about the underlying dirt or footing being disturbed by hoofprints and then freezing into hard lumps, or thawing during the day to leave a layer of mud that's "slick as snot," as my farrier would say. I tend to shoe my horses with rim snow pads and turn out no matter what, but I fully understand why many people will keep their horses inside in this type of footing. A nice compacted stonedust dry lot does help, but even that will be pockmarked with hoofprints when it gets saturated with melting snow.

The sand-and-stonedust mixture in front of the shed is saturated from the melting snow, and by morning it will be frozen into hard lumps. I've already picked as much manure as I can but don't look too closely...it's not what I'd call clean! 
Water: I am extremely fortunate to have a heated Nelson waterer in the dry lot, so I really don't have to worry about this anymore. But if you don't have a heated waterer and it's cold enough to snow, obviously it's cold enough to freeze your water buckets or trough! If your area gets to the 30s or below in the winter, definitely try to run power out to your pastures so you can plug in trough defrosters or large heated buckets. It won't make the water warm, but at least it will keep it flowing and the horses hydrated! I used to use this 16-gallon bucket from Allied Precision, which was the perfect size for two large horses and a mini-donkey to use for 8 hours a day. I preferred it to a large trough because it would be close enough to empty by the end of the day that I could easily dump it, unplug it for the night, and start over with fresh water in the morning.

Cleanup: I pick manure from the dry lot daily to prevent it from mixing into the stonedust footing and ruining my expensive investment, and picking manure from snow is THE WORST! So when there's significant snow, I sometimes do keep the horses inside overnight just because stall cleaning is a million times easier than the old poop-ball-in-the-snow treasure hunt. And as bad as that is with fresh snow, just wait until the snow partially melts then refreezes, encapsulating the manure in a shell of icy sludge and cementing it to the ground! At that point, you need a metal pitchfork and sometimes a sledgehammer to chisel it out. Once the snow melts, I have to do some tedious extra cleanup to prevent the now-soggy manure bits from mixing into the footing.

What's the only thing that can make cleaning manure in the snow more difficult and annoying? A stubborn ass standing between the manure and the muck tub!

This is as clean as it's going to get for a while.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Short-Term Hay Storage Shed Design

One of the things I've noticed about farm life is that every solution comes with new problems. That's the pessimistic way to put it I guess! What I mean is that whenever I make an improvement that I think will make my life easier or my horses' lives better, it inevitably comes with new, smaller issues that need to be resolved. For example, when I started rotating my pasture I found that although it was very good for pasture health, no horse traffic in an area for weeks at a time encourages wildlife to move in, so I find myself filling rabbit holes more often. (No groundhogs yet, fingers crossed.)

Here's another example, and the topic of this post: I installed a dry lot to save the pasture in bad weather, get the horses out of their stalls, and save myself labor as far as turn in/out and stall cleaning--and now I've found that there are more things I need to do to make that work. Specifically, I need somewhere to store hay near the dry lot.

Building hay storage into the shed wasn't very practical because of how the shed is sited (on the far side of the dry lot, abutting the field). Last winter I stored hay for turnout on a pallet covered in tarp, but that system doesn't work well in warmer weather when the hay is more likely to get moldy. I decided to put a 4'x8' shed with double front doors near the main gate to the dry lot. That should leave room for a couple pallets of hay (my goal is to keep a week's worth), a couple bars for hanging spare (dry) blankets, and a few hooks for miscellaneous things like feed bags.

I'm fairly handy and have a lot of tools, so I thought building it myself might be an option. I found these instructions that seemed pretty straightforward. To estimate cost, I added all of the materials I would need to a Home Depot shopping cart, which quickly reached almost $600, not even including the roof and doors! I decided that once I factored in those things and the opportunity cost of my time (and inevitable frustration as something didn't go as planned), maybe the DIY option wasn't worthwhile after all.

I spent a day shopping around online with little success. Many lower-cost options are metal, which I don't want for hay storage due to lack of breathability, and many wooden ones were too big (starting at 8'x8'). Finally I emailed a local place where a friend had bought a very large and extravagant shed a few months back. I was in luck! They had a 4'x8' lean-to style shed with the exact configuration I wanted, and it was even painted green with off-white trim, to complement (or at least not clash too badly with) my light-green-with-white-trim run-in. Including tax and delivery, it would cost $1,090. As much as I didn't want to spend that, it was only a few hundred dollars more than the DIY idea would cost, and I wouldn't have to kill an entire weekend building the thing.

Over the weekend, I chose a level site near the gate and prepped it by stripping the topsoil with the tractor. This was much easier than I expected, as my tractor is only 23 HP. Apparently the ground was just the right amount of soft for the job, without being wet or mucky. I tidied up the edges a bit with the shovel and retired to the house rather proud of my hour's work!

Dominick the Donkey provided expert supervision during site prep.

The hole ended up being 18" longer and wider than the shed, which is what the internet recommends (so it must be true, right?). It was about 6-7" deep. I was aiming for 12" wider and 4" deep but my tractor skills aren't all that refined.

The next day, the local landscape supply store delivered a load of CR-6. I was originally planning on ordering 1 ton but since I got a little overzealous with the tractor, I decided 2 would be safer. It was about $30 per ton plus a $30 delivery fee, so around $90 total.

After the stone was delivered, I spread it around in the hole with the tractor bucket, then leveled it roughly. I wet it down to aid in compaction, topped it off with a bucketful of stonedust from my stockpile (handy stuff!), then drove back and forth many times, checking level once in a while. I think a plate compactor is recommended but this shed is relatively small and has its own 4x4 base and skids, so I was a little casual about it.

The newly delivered shed sits well on the little base I made it:

Inside I have two pallets for hay, hooks, a blanket rack, and some miscellaneous stuff I like to keep out near the field:

The light just under the eaves is a battery-powered motion sensor light I screwed into the wall so I can see what I'm doing in there. I have a few more of those lights scattered around the farm, like near the gate to the pasture, and they come in handy.
Since hay was what I'd be using from the shed most often, I positioned it so I could access it without having to open both doors. There's actually a second stack of hay to the right too, so I can fit 6 bales easily and 8 if I want to stack to the ceiling.

I was sure when I first wrote this post 1.5 years ago (whoops!) that a family of coyotes or something would move into it and cause yet another problem for me to solve, but so far this shed has been problem-free! It has even withstood some really high winds, despite the fact that I never got around to anchoring it like maybe I should.

Friday, June 29, 2018

PVC Strip Doors for Stalls

I love that my horses can go in and out of their stalls at will, but one problem with having the Dutch doors open all the time is that rain and snow sometimes blow in. If I had shelled out for a real overhang on that side of the barn (major regret!), that might not be a problem. But the overhang is only a few inches and adding one now would be a huge, expensive project so I looked for an alternative and found out about PVC strip doors. You may have seen them in warehouses or walk-in freezers.

Purchase and Installation

I purchased "PVC stip doors" from Hoover Fence. It cost $145.53 for the mounting hardware and enough strips to cover each 4' wide doorway. The strips have little holes at the top that you use to hang them from the mounting bracket. It only takes a step stool and a few minutes to put them on or take them off. When you first get them, you trim them to fit the height of your doorway (a pair of sharp scissors works just fine, no need to mess with utility knives). I made sure to cut mine just short enough that a horse couldn't step on a trailing end and rip the whole thing down. You should install them so that they overlap each other a little bit.


Since my horses had never experienced strip doors before, I acclimated them to the strips slowly. I added once to each side first so their barrels would just brush against the strips. I led them in and out of their stalls a few times to make sure no one was going to freak out. After a few days I increased it to two on each side and then three. That left only a small gap in the middle that they could stick their noses through (as you can see in the first picture below). After a few more days I added the final strip so that they had to actively part the strips with their noses. My horses never showed any anxiety about the strips, even the very-cautious donkey who took months to decide the Bar Bar A waterer was safe to use, and I probably could have put them all up in just a day or two if I had wanted.

R sticks his head through the gap in the strips that I've left to acclimate him to walking through him.

Even the donkey, who is super cautious about new things, figured out the strips pretty quickly. (Pardon the poo, but that nose was too cute to not photograph!)

You can see in the photos below how the strips reduce the amount of rain blown into the bedding (this photo isn't super-dramatic but there's definitely a difference, I swear. If it's super windy and the rain is blowing sideways from east to west (my stalls face east), some rain might come in, but nowhere near as much as when the strips aren't there.

You can kind of see the darker bedding that got wet when the rain blew in.

With the strips installed, the bedding is totally dry.

One benefit I hadn't given much thought to was keeping the stalls a little warmer in the winter. Horses handle cold very well and my part of the country (the mid-Atlantic area) doesn't get cold enough to be a problem, but frozen water buckets and things like that are a pain. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the strips make a significant difference in the amount of ice in stall water buckets after a cold night.

I removed some of the strips from one stall as an experiment. The bucket on the left came from a stall only half-enclosed with PVC strips. The bucket on the right came from one fully enclosed. You can see a big difference in the amount of ice in the buckets.

I have had issues with undesirable birds like starlings trying to nest in my barn every spring, so it occurred to me that the strips might help with this too. My aisle and aisle windows are not screened off in any way, so birds can still get into the barn and I have seen them fly around the stalls looking for a way out, unable to get through the strips. If you have a major bird problem and want to enclose all of your doors and windows, PVC strips could be part of that plan.

A few times I have seen undesirables like horseflies and wasps trapped inside the stalls though, and unlike birds they're not generally smart enough to seek another way out, so that's one thing to consider.


The first full year I had the strips, I found that they were not advantageous in the warmer months. Not only do they occasionally trap unpleasant insects inside the stalls, but they also block the breeze. So, I typically put them up in the fall and take them down in early summer, when I start to feel like they're making the stalls stuffy. I do wish I had them up sometimes during summer thunderstorm season, especially when the rain blows sideways and soaks a large portion of the stall!

Cleaning and Storage

The strips do get grungy over time from the horses walking in and out (especially if you have a dusty donkey--it cracks me up to see the strips for his door totally clean at the top and filthy at the bottom 3 feet). Also, if you take them down for part of the year you'll want to clean them before you put them away.

The good news is that cleaning them is easy. Because I make all my purchase decisions based on Amazon reviews 😇, I bought a bottle of Meguiar's vinyl cleaner. I drape the strips over the fence of my wash rack, wet them down with the hose, don some rubber gloves, and turn the strips transparent again. One spritz of Meguiar's goes a long way, and it allows you to easily wipe off most of the grunge. I think one bottle will last quite a few years.

Hopefully I don't need to tell you which side is before and which is after!

You don't want to fold the strips up for storage because they will develop creases where they're bent. Once mine have dried in the sun, I roll them up and put them in a box in the garage until fall. (Note: a box containing strips for three stalls is surprisingly heavy!) I try to hang them up again before winter sets in because if it's too cold, the ends of the strips tend to stay curled.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Aerated Compost: Is It Right For You?

Dear readers,

I realize it's been a long time since I've posted! A few people have requested a new post or a post specifically on this topic and I feel remiss for keeping you waiting so long. (I love reader feedback, by the way!) I've been writing this post little by little over time, wanting to get a feel for the compost system before I passed judgment. Without further ado...

It has been about a year since I built my bins and started using an aerated compost system designed by O2 Compost. Now that I have some familiarity with the system, below are the pros and cons to aerated compost as I see them (I'll elaborate more on the cons because the pros are pretty much what O2 Compost advertises, and I already discussed them a bit in this post).

Disclaimer: I am by no means a composting expert. The following is based on my experiences over the last year and on my understanding of the O2 Compost materials and discussions I had with them before and after purchasing my kit. If any of you readers have additional or contrary thoughts, please share them with us in the comments section!

  • No need to turn the pile, which is an unpleasant and laborious task.
  • Quicker composting time compared to non-aerated systems.
  • Ensures adequate heat to kill parasites and weed seeds.
  • Returns nutrients to your soil.
  • Self-sufficiency: no more relying on someone else to come haul your manure off (this was a major factor for me, as my long-time manure remover retired and the person who took over was not living up to his standards).
  • Low monthly cost, after start-up (your cost will pretty much just be your time/labor when emptying the bins, fuel/maintenance for your tractor, and maintenance for your spreader).
    • Speaking of start-up costs, you may be able to defer some of your costs through a local environmental conservation program, especially if you're in a sensitive watershed area.
  • Excellent tech support/customer service if you go through O2 Compost. I found them to be very helpful both before I made the decision to purchase the system and after I built it. I had a couple of questions and issues over the last year, and Harold in particular has been great to work with.
  • My bins are much prettier than the dumpster I used to use (even if I still haven't gotten around to staining them like I planned):
Before and after!

  • High start-up cost, especially if you don't already own a tractor and/or spreader. While it's theoretically possible to compost without a tractor and spreader, I wouldn't want to do it. I can't imagine any other efficient way to distribute all that composted waste. If anyone knows of one, please let us know! Not counting the tractor, which I already owned, my start-up costs were:
    • $699 for kit from O2 Compost, purchased through Amazon with free shipping (includes bin blueprints, instruction manual, blower, thermometer, and some PVC tubes that I actually didn't use because they weren't the right size for my 6x6x4 system, and when I bought tubes at the local Home Depot the diameter didn't match up so I couldn't use the connections O2 Compost sent either) 
    • $1,225 for lumber, hardware, Suntuff lids, an extension cord to power the blower, and PVC to run the extension cord under the driveway.
If you already own a tractor and spreader and this is the extent of your costs, a compost system is much more likely to make sense financially. I had a really economical manure removal service that charged $60 per removal for a small wooden dumpster that held about 4.8 cubic yards and fit well in the space I had available. My waste disposal costs averaged out to $38/month over the first 3 years I had my farm, before I built the bins. However, all of the alternative services in my area charge much, much more (like $275 per month for a giant dumpster that wouldn't fit well in my space, and had to be removed once a month no matter how full or empty it was), and I just couldn't stomach that. If my composting costs were limited to the kit and lumber (total of $1,924), the system would have paid for itself in 6.4 years ($2,924 / $38.28/month = 76 months) vs. using the economical disposal service or merely 10 months vs. using the more expensive $275/month alternatives, which would be pretty good. Unfortunately I also ended up having to pay...
    • ...$3,965 for a new 50-cubic-foot ABI PTO-driven spreader
The spreader is where composting got me, financially. I already discussed this in my post on spreading but briefly, I planned to buy an old used spreader for about $1,000 and then discovered that all of the used spreaders I could find were either too large for my 23-horsepower tractor or painfully small (as in, a painful number of trips to the pasture to empty one bin). I had already built the bins and partially filled one by the time I figured this out, so I was kind of stuck. Now my system will not pay for itself until almost 13 years have passed. 😣 (I like to make myself feel better by using the alternative price of $275/month though, which makes it only 1.8 years.) Moral of the story: if you think you might be interested in a compost system and have a smaller tractor, you might want to keep an eye out for appropriate used spreaders for a while before you decide to invest. If you don't have a tractor at all, maybe you could train your horse to do this:
Is there something meta about a horse hauling its own waste around a field?
  • Emptying the bins is labor-intensive. I have a tractor with a front-loader and that works for a few spreader loads, but I can't scrape all the way to the ground because of the aeration tubes plus my bins are deeper than the loader arms are long. The last two 50-cubic-foot spreader loads, I have to shovel by hand. My hubby helps when he can but for either of us, it is literally back-breaking work. (Also a bit smelly! Which bothers him more than me.) It takes about 3 hours for me to empty one 6x6x4 bin and spread it on the pasture. (For whatever it's worth, I drive about 400 feet from the bins to the main entrance to my pasture, according to Google maps.) Obviously if your front-loader and/or spreader are bigger, you can do it faster. If you buy one of those tiny spreaders, good luck. It can be a one-person job but it does go faster if you have a second set of hands to hook up and unhook the spreader in between loads and shovel the muck into the front-loader while you dump the front-loader into the spreader as it fills (definitely take that job if you can, the shoveling sucks! 😜).
  • You need a good way to get waste into the bins in the first place. I already had a retaining wall with a walkway up it that I used for my dumpster, so I built my bins up against that and can dump the wheelbarrow into them. I think this is the ideal. When I first built my barn and didn't have that retaining wall yet, I mucked into small carts and lifted the muck up into the dumpster, and that was awful. If you have any sort of physical limitations, it may not even be possible. You could also muck into a front-loader but personally I don't want to break the tractor out every time I pick a stall, and my loader isn't large enough for the overnight waste of 2-3 stalls so I'd have to make multiple trips. Ramps are another option but a ramp with 4' of rise needs to be pretty long for you to push a full wheelbarrow up it safely. You'll also need to make sure it isn't slippery because that's a recipe for injury (if you've ever faceplanted and been run over by your own wheelbarrow before, you know that's not something you want to experience twice). The O2 Compost website has lots of examples of finished systems so you can see how other people have made theirs accessible for dumping. 
To fill my bins, I push my wheelbarrow up a gravel path and dump it in from above. The path and hinged plywood ramp were designed for use with my old dumpster and continue to work well for the compost bins.
  • Unless you can let the waste cure for a long time, it will still very clearly be stall waste, not true compost. Theoretically, given enough time to cure, the stall waste will lose its distinctive smell and appearance and turn into uniform, crumbly, dark, beautiful compost. That probably does happen if you can create good conditions and give it enough time. However, I have never once had this happen, perhaps because the longest I've ever been able to let a full bin sit is about 6 weeks. If you have fewer horses, bigger bins, or more bins, you may be able to achieve this ideal. Also, there never seems to be exactly uniform airflow or composting so sometimes there's a mass of dark, wet, sticky, fresh-looking-and-smelling manure in the middle of the bin. Hubby really doesn't like those parts! He never used to think horse manure was offensive but after helping me with this compost system for a year, he really does.
Still recognizably stall waste.

Lots of manure balls still intact.

Cautions (these aren't drawbacks to the system so much as things to think about before you invest or when you're planning your system)
  • Depending on where you live, it may be environmentally unsound or even illegal to spread manure year-round. It's not the best practice in the winter when the ground is frozen and nutrients tend to run off into surface water rather than working their way into the soil (for more on best practices for winter spreading, see here). If it freezes where you are (or if your spreading area is ever so wet for so long you can't or don't want to drive a tractor in there), you'll need a plan for dealing with the waste until you can spread it.
  • If your horses are stalled a lot or you pick dry lot/pasture waste into the bins, the Micro-Bins (4x4x4, 4x6x4, or 6x6x4) will fill up fast, unless maybe you only have one horse. Currently my horses aren't getting turnout due to lameness, and the waste of two 1,500-lb horses and one ~300-lb mini-donkey fills a bin in 2-3 weeks, yikes. When one bin is full, I have to spread the contents of the other immediately or I will have nowhere to put my muck. My waste therefore isn't getting any time to cure, though at least it's heating up enough to kill parasites and weed seeds (vs. being spread directly on the field). I wish I could have built a third bin but it just wasn't possible with the space I had.
  • "Input" composition matters! In a few ways: 
    • If you pick dry lot/pasture waste into the bins, it will not have the proper composition for aerated composting. Pure manure is too wet to heat up properly and too dense for good airflow. The thought of buying nice clean sawdust or something similar for the sole purpose of mixing it with horse crap really offends me. So, I drag the pastures rather than pick them and spread dry lot pickings directly on the pasture as well. There are other things you could mix in that might work, like yard trimmings, but I'm not sure exactly what composition they'd have to have.
    • O2 Compost recommends a porous layer over the pipes (e.g., coarsely ground brush/yard trimmings--but watch out for toxic plants if you're spreading on your pasture) and a clean buffer layer (e.g., finished compost, clean shavings) at the top of the bin. You cannot just fill the whole thing top to bottom with stall waste and expect ideal results, due to air circulation and insulation issues. So, you will need to plan what to use for these layers and you may need to pay money for them.
  • If you have a threshold that the tractor can't cross without doing damage, try not to make your bins deeper than your tractor can reach. See above about how much it sucks to shovel horse crap out of the bins by hand, and try to minimize that as much as you can. I did not think about this minor detail when I planned my bins.
  • If you can, set your aeration pipes down in the base so you have a smooth surface to scrape the manure out of. I believe this system in New York has that, and you can see how much easier it would make emptying the bins: Pleasant View Farm O2 Compost system (I also like the roof rainwater collection idea!).
The Bottom Line

This post may look negative because I devote a lot more words and space to the cons, but my overall opinion of aerated composting is in fact positive. I just want you people to know what you're getting into! I think that if you want to be self-sufficient in horse waste disposal, it is the way to go (especially if you can pay someone to shovel out the bins for you!) because it's safer and in some ways more convenient than spreading directly on the fields, and more efficient than traditional composting.

That said, if money and giant-dumpster space were no object, I might go back to having my manure hauled off just because it is so much more convenient. No worrying about whether your mixture is correct or wet enough or dry enough or getting enough air (although to be honest, I haven't spent a whole lot of time worrying about any of this, except to make sure it's staying hot enough for long enough to kill parasites, and mine has turned out okay). No shoveling and spreading. No watching the bin fill up faster than you expected and knowing that soon, you are going to have to shovel and spread. Just pick up your phone, write a check, and your stall waste goes poof! (Of course, if your manure disposal service is not reliable or tends to crash into your vehicles/buildings or destroy your driveway, it might not be this easy. If that's the case, definitely consider aerated composting.)

But since having my waste hauled off stopped being a good option for me, I think my best alternative was aerated composting. I'm also glad I went through O2 Compost because even though you can buy all of the components separately (and I didn't really use their blueprints because they didn't offer any 6x6x4 plans at that time), you get the benefit of their technical support for as long as you have the system.

Well, I'd say that was a pretty epic first post back. As always, questions and comments are welcome, either in the comments section below or by email. Happy composting!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Aerated Compost: Spreading

This is the third post in my series about aerated compost. For part one on building the compost bins, click here. For part two on the composting process itself, click here.

One key feature of a composting system is a way to use or to dispose of the compost. Some people find that they can give away or even sell compost to local gardeners and farmers. My plan from the beginning was to spread it on my own pasture because the whole point of composting for me was self-sufficiency.

When to spread:

You can spread your aerated compost safely as soon as it has heated up enough to kill weed seeds and parasites (monitor your temps so you know when this happens!). The longer it is able to "cure," the better it will be; it will start to look less like manure and stall waste and more like uniform, dark, crumbly mulch. I never really have time to let this happen so I spread one bin as soon as the second fills up and I need the first available again.

Because the compost gets so hot, in theory there's no reason you can't spread it on pasture that your horses are currently grazing (unlike fresh, un-composted manure, which can present health risks). Personally, I still prefer to spread it in sections of the pasture that are currently resting. (Although I only have 3 acres of pasture, it's divided into three sections for rotational grazing; see more about cross-fencing here and the benefits of rotation here). I try to spread compost on a section that I have just started resting, so it has some time to work into the soil before the horses are back on it.

Keep in mind that it's bad for the environment (and wasteful of your precious compost) to spread before heavy rains or snowmelt, or when the ground is frozen. The compost will run off and the nutrients will end up in the nearest lake or river, fertilizing algae blooms instead of your grass. Winter spreading is even against the law in some places! (Penn State offers some winter spreading best practices that you might want to review.) So, if you are going to compost find out what your local regulations are and come up with a plan for the winter (like giving it away or stockpiling it until spring).

How to spread (equipment):

Really the only efficient way to spread large quantities of compost is a manure spreader. If you have a lot of time and/or patience and/or muscles, you might devise some other method like forking it out of the bed of a pickup truck or filling your tractor bucket 1,000 times, but I don't...so I bought a manure spreader.

There are two basic types of dry manure spreaders, ground-driven and PTO-driven. Ground-driven basically means that the rotation of the wheels powers the spreading action. PTO is powered by your tractor's engine. A quick Google search will reveal that people have lots of opinions on which is best. I initially leaned towards ground-driven because they're somewhat less expensive and seem to have less mechanical complexity (I thought they might be less likely to break/require service). However, with a PTO spreader you can control the spreading rate better and ground-driven spreaders may tear up the ground more or take more passes to empty. You can also empty a PTO spreader at a standstill (for example, if you want/need to stockpile your compost before spreading). Ultimately I decided to go with a PTO spreader.

My original plan was to buy a used spreader. There are a ton of them out there that you can find at local dealers or online (try https://www.tractorhouse.com). Unfortunately, I hit a snag. Most of the used manure spreaders out there are on the large side, and my 23-horsepower Kubota didn't have the power for them. I looked high and low for several months but could not find a used spreader small enough for my tractor to pull and yet large enough to handle my compost in a reasonable number of loads. Ultimately, I had to give up and buy a new spreader, which made the whole composting project much more expensive than I had planned (I had already bought the O2 Compost system and built the bins at this point, so there was no turning back).

I chose a 50-cubic-foot PTO-drive ABI, which was delivered to my farm on a flatbed truck. It was all shiny and new and poop-free! (For about a week...) Here is it's inaugural load:

This spreader cost around $3,600 including delivery, which is much more than I had originally intended to spend. The (very old, as in 30+ years in some cases) used spreaders I saw locally were plentiful in the $1,000-2,000 range but sadly, I would need to upgrade my tractor. ABI's 25- to 65-cubic-foot spreaders range from about $3,000 to $5,000.

To fill the spreader, I park it near the bins and use the front loader to dump the compost in. At a certain point, my front loader can't reach anymore or I start interfering with the aeration pipes, so I have to start using a shovel. It's back-breaking work that is even less pleasant in the summer.

My ABI is easy to operate but doesn't spread super evenly. I'd say about 50-70% of the compost just drops out the end gate, directly behind the spreader. The rest is spun by the beaters and flies off to the sides.

Because the spreader concentrates most of the compost in narrow lines, I typically drag the field with my chain harrow after spreading. I try to drag perpendicular to the spreader trails so everything gets more evenly distributed. I do wish I didn't have to do this though! This may be how all spreaders work--I'm not sure.

The spreading process is easily the most labor-intensive phase of the composting process, but it can bring benefits to your land by returning nutrients to it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Feeding for Weight Gain: Cost Comparisons

I've always had pretty easy keepers but recently acquired a lease horse who works quite hard and needs a lot more feed than I'm used to providing. I analyzed the diet he was on before he came to me and came up with one using my preferred brand of feeds that was better or comparable in every dimension except fat. For a couple months I fed him that diet (1.5 lbs of Triple Crown 30% and 3 lbs of Triple Crown Senior plus 1 lb of alfalfa cubes and free choice hay), thinking he might not need the same amount of fat with me riding him as with his owner, who is a professional trainer. When he started looking a little ribby, I researched the best ways to add fat back into his diet.

There are lots of options, including adding or increasing: an appropriate hard or complete feed, oil (vegetable, rice bran, cocosoya oil), rice bran, flax seed, black oil sunflower seeds, or calorie/fat supplements like Cool Calories. They have different nutritional profiles, pros/cons, and of course costs. More educated people than me have written about the nutritional profiles and pros/cons of these different options so I will not go into that in detail (see the always awesome Understanding Horse Nutrition to start), but what I will share is the cost analysis I performed for the options I considered.

It's easy to figure out how much these options cost per day but to compare apples to apples, you have to also consider how many of your desired nutrients each option provides. Therefore I calculated the cost of four different options per kilocalorie (1,000 calories or 1 Calorie), per gram of fat, and per gram of protein. The options I considered were increasing his TC Senior, adding Legends rice bran, adding canola oil, or adding Cool Calories (a powdered fat supplement). I also considered whether these options provided balanced nutrition or not. Here's what I came up with (click to enlarge if needed):

Red indicates highest costs per unit and green indicates lowest. Of course, costs vary by store and region but these were the costs pertinent to me in the Mid-Atlantic area. The canola oil price was from an online restaurant supply store that sold it for a better price than local stores, but I have heard that Costco is an excellent source too (I'm not a member).

I ultimately decided to try rice bran because 1) the horse had been on it before successfully, 2) oil is messy, 3) it adds protein as well as fat/calories, and 4) it checked the most boxes as far as cost. Since it's not a balanced feedstuff by itself, I checked his new diet in my old standby nutrition spreadsheet (pictured here) to make sure it would not throw off any mineral ratios or cause other disturbances. Good to go!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Aerated Compost: the Composting Process

This post is the second in a series about composting stall waste, specifically with an aerated compost system by O2 Compost. For details on the construction of the compost bins, click here.

The idea behind aerated compost is that you can reduce composting time and the need to turn the pile (a major timesaver!) by introducing air into the system. O2 Compost says it better than I do so, in their words: "The oxygen stimulates the microorganisms that are already in the mix, and their by-product is heat. In a properly operated compost system, pile temperatures are sufficient to pasteurize the raw material and dramatically reduce offensive odors. High temperatures also destroy fly larvae and weed seeds. This means that the result of this process is safe, high-quality soil enhancement that supports healthy plant growth." O2 Compost advertises results in 30 to 60 days.

Quick turnaround time is important if, like me, you have limited space for your compost bins. You don't want to wait months for the waste to compost because your horses aren't going to stop eating and pooping if you run out of space.

I was worried that even a 6'x6'x4' bin would fill up faster than the other one could compost. I currently have one more horse than I ever planned for (ha, they do say not to build a bigger barn than you need or you will fill it with horses) and all three of my horses are pretty big. The extra horse is temporary but could be here for a year or more, so I needed to plan for that.

I talked the whole thing through ad nauseam with the people at O2 Compost before I decided to take the plunge. They assured me that although your compost will get better if it sits 30-60 days or longer, the critical temperatures needed to kill pathogens are typically reached within a week, so a shorter timeframe produces compost that is safe to spread on your own fields, though not something anyone else would want.

Let's fast forward now to late April, when my first bin filled up 29 days after it received its inaugural load. During that time, it was used for the stall waste of three large warmblood horses of about 1,500-1,700 lbs each and a mini-donkey. They were out on pasture from about 7 am to 5 pm (longer on nice days) and inside overnight, so the bin was used for 14 hours of waste per day.

O2 Compost recommends covering a full bin with six inches of clean material to insulate the waste from moisture and temperature variations, reduce odor, and reduce fly activity. I used two 8-cubic-foot bags of "premium pine shavings" from Tractor Supply, because they're less expensive than the fine shavings I like to use for stalls, and less likely to mix into the composted material. O2 Compost instructs you to keep this layer damp, so I sprayed it with the hose as I filled it.

I was impressed by how well the lids kept the top layer from drying out, something I was worried about as the heat of summer approached. We also got a lot of rain in the first few weeks after the bin filled, and I'm very glad I had the lids to keep most of that out. Apparently if your waste gets too waterlogged it will not compost and the only way to fix that is to remove it from the bin and spread it out to dry--what a hassle. No, thanks!

I was also pleasantly surprised by how the flies had zero interest in the full bin after I added the top layer of clean shavings.

After I filled it and covered it in a cozy blanket of pine shavings, I was a bad compost mom to this first load. I went out of town right after filling it, so I did not take temperature readings like I was supposed to. I also didn't feel like asking the farmsitter to water my compost in addition to all the other things she had to do for the living, breathing animals, so I just hoped for the best. Thankfully, as I've said, the lids did a great job maintaining the correct moisture content despite inches of rain.

The moment of truth came on June 13th, when the second bin was full and I had to empty the first one so I'd have somewhere to put new waste. I was pleased with how much the materials had "reduced" during composting. Here are some photos of what the materials--okay, let's go ahead and call it compost now--looked like after 51 days of composting:

The composting process has considerably reduced the volume of the waste.

The very top layer of the shavings looked dry, but just below the surface they were nice and damp.

Look, a mushroom! That's supposed to be a good sign. I found quite a few of these suckers in there. (No, I did not eat any of them.)
Here's the compost after I scraped off as much of the clean shavings as I could, to be reused on the second bin. (Partially because I hate waste, partially because I'm frugal, and partially because I didn't want to spread more uncomposted woody materials on my pasture than necessary.) I'd say there's about 60-70% of the original volume remaining. I was a little anxious about opening the doors but it held its shape and did not bury me in an avalanche of sh!t.

The innards of the pile. Some parts of it looked dark and uniform like compost is supposed to. Others just looked like well-aged stall waste. I suppose it wasn't the best batch of compost anyone has ever made but hey, it was my first attempt. On the plus side, almost none of it smelled like stall waste. It wasn't pleasantly earthy, but it wasn't offensive either so that must be a good sign.

Emptying the bin was kind of brutal, especially since I did it on the two hottest days of the year so far. The tractor bucket could only help so much because the bin was deeper than the front-loader could reach, and I couldn't scrape all the way to the ground because of the aeration tubes. I had to shovel two spreader loads out by hand (by back?). Still, it was very satisfying to get it all out of there and spread it on the field.

Speaking of spreading, stay tuned for more details on that!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Aerated Compost: Bin Construction

I recently installed a two-bin O2 compost system. Here are some construction photos!

The bins are close enough to the barn to make stall cleaning more convenient.

The site for the new compost bins. The retaining wall and ramp were already in place from when there was a dumpster there. I can push the wheelbarrow up the ramp to dump it into the bins from above.

We started with a new asphalt pad to provide a nice level site and make clean-up easier.

This is the first bin before the doors were installed. The PVC pipes (perforated on the underside) are for aeration and the 4x4's next to them are to protect them from the loader when I empty the bin.

Here's the first box with the doors on, from the outside...

...and from the inside.

This is the blower motor that does the aeration magic. 4" PVC valves are $$$$ so I put in separate pipes to each bin and I will just move the blower back and forth when I switch from one bin to the next every month or two.

Here are both bins, finished with lids to keep the moisture content steady.

The hinged lids open easily for dumping and emptying.
The bins are 6' wide by 6' deep by 4' high. The lids are made out of Suntuf polycarbonate roofing panels.