How to Control Horse Manure Piles

Manure management options that will help you reduce that unsightly pile of horse manure in your barnyard.

If you’ve got a horse, you know manure happens. The average-size Dobbin produces approximately 40 pounds of horse manure per day. Multiply that by 30 days for a per-month total. Multiply that by 12 months, and you’ve got more than 7 tons of waste per year. If you have more than one horse, you’re talking double-digit tonnage. Holy humus, Batman! What do you do with that pile of, er, stuff?

Kate Light. All Rights Reserved.

We posted the question on the Internet, and fellow horse manure managers spoke up. We’ll share with you their solutions for mini-mizing that organic byproduct of horse ownership. So put down that pitchfork and read on!

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Solution #1: Recycle it
What You Do: Start a compost pile. That’s a heap of organic material (in your case, horse manure and bedding) that’s stored in such a way as to encourage rapid decomposition, and thus a reduction in bulk. Your compost pile can also include yard/garden clippings and such garbage foodstuffs as vegetable peelings.

Why It Works: When you compost organic matter, you create a combination of heat, chemicals, and beneficial bacteria that morphs it from decaying yuck into rich soil. (You can shrink the size of your waste pile by 50 percent in a matter of months.) You can use the end result as nutrient-rich topsoil on your pastures, lawn, and garden-or you can sell it.

How to Do It: Here’s a plan from our horse manure managers.

  • Build a composter. As a rule of thumb, an 8-by-8-foot square area surrounded by three 5-foot walls will accommodate one horse’s waste. (Enlarge it accordingly to accommodate your equine population.) You can start a compost pile on raw ground, but a cement pad will make it easier to use a tractor for managing the pile. (More about that in a minute.) Construct walls of concrete, cinder block, or treated 2-by-10s. If time and money are at a premium (and when aren’t they?), our manure managers say you can also start a compost pile on raw ground, and without container walls. But decomposition may be slowed. Containment encourages rapid breakdown by allowing the manure to be piled deep enough, from end to end, for heat to accumulate and speed up the process. If you opt for a free-standing compost pile, cover it with black plastic to amplify the sun’s heat.
  • Start piling your horse manure in the composter. To accelerate decomposition, keep your compost pile about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. You can regulate its moisture content by occasionally spraying it with a hose, and/or by covering it when necessary with a plastic tarp to protect it from excessive rains or drying sunshine.
  • Aerate it. To achieve rapid, even decomposition, you’ll need to “stir” the pile. When you do, air combines with the moist organic matter to accelerate decay. You’ll also spread heat and bacteria throughout the pile, so cooler, bacteria-poor areas can join the party. You can achieve aeration in two ways: manual and passive. If you have a tractor with a front-end loader, you can manually stir the pile every week or 2. The more often you turn it, the sooner you convert that pile of puckey into rich soil. If you don’t have a tractor, turning the pile with a shovel will achieve the same result-but it’s a lot of darn work.

Passive aeration requires no manual labor. Instead, before you begin composting, lay several 4- to 6-inch diameter PVC pipes (the kind with holes in them, used for septic systems) across the base of your pile. You can also insert several pipes, chimneylike, into what will be the pile’s center. The more pipes you use, the more aeration occurs.

Upside: You’re converting waste into a useful product-rich soil. You can use it on your own sandy or clay ground as a nutrient-rich topsoil, or sell it to gardeners at a premium price. (In one reader’s Northwestern town, compost sells at the local topsoil dealer for $8 per cubic yard, undelivered; $11.50, delivered.) Heat generated by a properly functioning compost pile also kills any parasites in the manure, so you needn’t worry about contaminating your fields with equine worm larvae should you use it yourself. Heat also kills weed seeds from hay and bedding, and any undigested oats, so the compost is great in flower and vegetable gardens. Plus, composting reduces odor and flies.

Downside: Proper composting takes effort, as you need to monitor moisture levels and tend to aeration. Also, decomposition doesn’t happen overnight. How fast your compost “cooks” depends upon weather conditions and waste content. For instance, is the manure mixed with rapidly decomposing bedding, such as straw, fine shavings or sawdust, rice hulls, wheat byproducts, or shredded computer paper? Or is it mixed with slower-to-break-down, dense wood shavings? As a rule of thumb, an 8-by-8-by-4-foot high pile of manure mixed with straw or fine shavings can take 2 to 3 months to compost down 50 percent.

Cost: If you decide to go with a cement slab with cement, cinder- block, or treated-wood walls, your compost retainer can cost $500 to $1,000 and up, depending on its size. If you choose to compost directly on the ground, without walls, your cost is minimal. Passive aeration will run you $25 or less, for pipe. A plastic tarp to cover your pile is around $10. (Tip: Anything you spend on your compost pile can be offset by the sale of its byproduct.)

Solution #2: Spread It
What You Do: Use a manure spreader, which is a big wagon you tow behind a tractor or other vehicle. Spreaders use a belt mechanism to break down and scatter manure and bedding.

Why It Works: Rather than stockpiling horse manure, you shred it and use it immediately to fertilize your pastures.

How to Do It: First buy a spreader. You’ll find two mechanical options: PTO (power-take-off) or ground-driven. PTO units require a tractor with a PTO hookup to run the shred-and-spread machinery. They’re more powerful-and expensive-than their ground-driven cousins. Ground-driven units distribute manure using a beater-driver that hits the ground as the spreader rolls along, then flings out waste. Such spreaders require no PTO, so can be towed by a garden tractor, truck, or ATV.

Upside: No composting required, so your manure pile is reduced whenever you hitch up the spreader. By dispersing manure, straw, and shavings over pastures, you encourage the waste to break down, while providing free fertilization. (Your spreader can also distribute the composted soil created in Solution #1.)

Downside: If you don’t have a pasture, you’ll have to locate a nearby, agreeable neighbor’s on which to spread the horse manure. If you choose to spread stuff on your own pastures, beware: While composting manure generates heat that kills equine parasites, merely shredding and spreading it doesn’t. As a result, you’ll likely be reintroducing parasites to grazing areas, so keep your horses on a regular deworming program. (Tip: If you have cattle-owning neighbors, they’d likely welcome your spreading efforts. Cattle aren’t susceptible to equine parasites, so contamination isn’t a problem.)

Also, if your stall waste contains a high shavings-to-manure ratio, you’ll wind up with a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that’s too high for your soil. In layman’s terms, that means your pasture will turn yellow. If you have shavings-rich waste, mix an extra source of nitrogen, such as blood meal, bone meal, or straight nitrogen fertilizer with the refuse before you spread it.

Cost: Plan on spending $1,000 and up for a ground-driven manure spreader; $3,000 and up for a PTO unit. For towing (if you don’t have a truck or ATV), a basic, 10-horsepower lawn tractor will run approximately $2,500. The sky is almost the limit on tractors equipped with PTO units. Used ones in relatively good condition can be found starting in the $10,000 range.

Solution #3: Use Four-Legged Spreaders

What You Do: Use your horse–he’s a natural manure spreader.

Why It Works: Any time you get him out of a paddock or stall and onto areas that need fertilizing, you’ve taken a huge step in reducing Mount Manure’s elevation. For instance, if your horse spends 10 to 12 hours a day on pasture, you’ve reduced daily manure deposits in his stall or paddock by half. (And, you’ll have a happier horse!)

How to Do It: Turn him out!

Upside: You get the same free fertilizer that you’d get if you were to spread it mechanically, but without the costly outlay for equipment. (One horse produces approximately $150 worth of fertilizer per year.) As a bonus, your horse gets his daily exercise. You’ll decrease yours by reducing your shoveling and raking workload. And, you’ll increase the longevity of your stall bedding.

Downside: You may reintroduce parasites to your pastures, which could reinfest your horse. And, if your horse is one of those that always poops in the same small area, you may still need to regularly disperse the piles.

Cost: Zero, if you have the land and your horse uses the entire pasture for a restroom. If your pasture is small and/or your horse always poops in one spot, rent or buy a spring-tooth or split-tooth harrow to break up and spread manure. You can hitch such a harrow to your pickup, as the harrow doesn’t require PTO. Used harrows can be found at equipment auctions for less than $100. (We know of a vet who simply hooks an old chain-link gate to the back of her truck and drags it along to break up manure piles in her pastures.)

Solution #4: Offer it Up
What to Do: Give the manure away, or sell it.

Why It Works: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Whether you pile your manure or compost it, you have a commodity that some people want: fertilizer or soil for gardens, lawns, and pastures.

How to Do It: Run frequent ads in the lawn-and-garden section of your local newspaper. Place fliers in greenhouses and nurseries. Contact nearby orchards and farmers to see if they’d like to regularly pick up your “fertilizer.” And don’t forget to post signs out on your road.

Upside: Your manure pile is hauled away for free. Sometimes, (especially in the case of compost), people will even pay for it! Note: To find the going rate for manure or compost in your area, look in the lawn-and-garden section of your newspaper.

Downside: Advertising takes time and money. If it’s successful, you’ll have to juggle your schedule to accommodate manure seekers. If you don’t have a tractor equipped with a front-end loader, you’ll be unable to offer a “we’ll load it free” service to folks who answer your ad. That means you’ll have to hope for (and deal with) either lots of folks who want a little manure, or a few who are equipped to haul off big pieces of your pile.

Cost: You’ll spend a couple of dollars for a short “free horse manure” ad; pennies for home-computer-generated fliers; and a few more bucks for wooden signs out by your driveway.

Solution #5: Bury It
What You Do: Put manure and shavings in a pre-dug ditch or hole, or use them to level a low spot on your land.

Why It Works: It’s the opposite of a pile! Think of buried manure as your own miniature biodegradable landfill.

How to Do It: Find or create an area in your barnyard’s topography where manure can be dumped to fill in and augment soil areas. If you don’t have a natural ditch or low spot, bring in a bulldozer or backhoe and create one, keeping in mind that you don’t want to fill up or block naturally beneficial drainage areas.

Upside: You’re adding to your land at the same time you’re disposing of manure. If you have a natural ditch area-or a place to create an artificial one-it can be a convenient and low-maintenance way to manage manure disposal.

Downside: Because your fill material will decompose over time, you’ll need to cover it periodically with a layer of topsoil to level and stabilize it. This is especially true if horses or people will be walking over the area .

Cost: Zero, if you have the natural topography; more if you have to call in a backhoe or bulldozer service to create one. A bulldozer can excavate a fill hole that’s 4 feet deep by 50 feet square in less than a day, depending upon the rock content of your soil. Bulldozer or backhoe services vary in cost from area to area, but generally average $65 per hour. (Caution: Be sure any deep ditch or hole you create is sited away from horse and human traffic. You wouldn’t want anyone falling in and getting hurt!)

Solution #6: Reduce It
What You Do: Minimize the amount of bedding you use.

Why It Works: The less matter you mix with manure, the easier your cleanup and the smaller your waste pile.

How to Do It: Use stall mats to reduce the amount of bedding you need. Once the mats are installed, consider bedding only the area where your horse generally urinates, rather than covering his entire stall. To further manage your manure mountain, choose bedding material that rapidly breaks down, such as straw, shredded computer paper or rice hulls. These biodegrade 10 times faster than shavings. (One manure manager tells us that her local landscaping supply company bags wheat residue left over from the manufacture of garden fabric. The residue is said to make a superior bedding that’s more absorbent and biodegradable than wood shavings. Plus, it’s free for the hauling!)

Upside: You’ll save money on bedding because you’ll use less. You’ll also save time and energy on stall-cleaning chores. Plus, alternative beddings are often cheaper than wood shavings, and usually more absorbent. And, they may break down faster than shavings.

Downside: Stall mats can be costly additions to your barn, although they should ultimately net you savings in bedding costs. The quality and quantity of alternative bedding is greatly dependent upon the area of the country in which you live. And, you won’t have a deeply bedded stall.

Cost: Stall mats run approximately $50 and up for a 4-by-6-foot mat. (Rubber conveyor belting works almost as well and can be much cheaper when gleaned from your local concrete-making firm. Look for belting that’s a minimum of 36-inches wide for maximum ground coverage.) Alternative bedding is often free of charge for the hauling.

Solution #7: Dispose of It
What You Do: Find a waste-removal service.

Why It Works: You pile your manure in a receptacle, such as a dumpster. The service regularly hauls it off.

How to Do It: If you have just one or two horses, you may find that by reducing bedding and practicing other alternatives outlined above, you can fit your manure into garbage cans and have it hauled off by your regular garbage service. (Check with the service, first, to see if they permit such waste.) If you have more horses, check into renting a dumpster.

Upside: No muss. No fuss. Manure is regularly hauled away from your facility, which prevents reinfestation by parasites and reduces fly problems.

Downside: Your garbage service may balk at hauling manure. If you rent a dumpster, the cost can be high, depending upon the area of country in which you live. Plus, you have to wrestle with the logistics of loading your manure into the receptacle.

Cost: According to the folks we talked to, dumpster services ranged from $40 every 3 months in Nevada (a bargain!) to $68 a month in South Carolina. (Tip: If you board your horses, you can split the dumpster cost among your fellow boarders.) F

The editors thank Alayne Blickle, program director for the Washington state-funded Horses for Clean Water.

This article originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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