Sunday, November 7, 2010


I love Throwback at Trapper Creek, but her area is so wildly different from mine that is usually leaves me jealous or confused. Here's a recent post, which I agree with totally in principle but I just can't apply in practice.

She has cows, one horse, and laying hens. Everybody's pastured when the grass is good, with rotational grazing for the four-leggers and chicken tractors for the hens. Pasturing works the manure into her beautiful grass. In the winter, she deep beds everybody and ends up with beautiful compost in the spring. Doesn't that sound awesome?

But how on earth do I modify that to work out here?

I have the one horse, who's easy to pick up after. (Really, there is nothing easier than scooping horse poop off of sand.) The goat poop ranges in size from very small to really tiny, and my manure fork can't pick it up. Are there goat poop forks? Does everybody else just ignore it? Goats don't poop much compared to horses, but I'm still concerned that the whole pasture will be carpeted in goat berries by the spring.

The other piece of the puzzle here is the wind. It's often windy, and it's occasionally incredibly windy. I think if I lived somewhere else, I could deep-bed the whole chicken run with shavings and capture the manure that way, but it's not an option here. I am considering buying a couple bales of straw and trying that, but I'm not sure it'll work.

There are a lot of farm/homesteading blogs about raising animals in more temperate climes, but I haven't found a single desert blog yet. I know I'm not the only person to raise backyard animals in the high desert, but surely I'm not the first one to write about it? Share some links if you've got them, please!

My compost experiments continue. It's been another frustrating experience - most compost articles are written for home gardeners who collect their potato peelings and lawn clippings and store them in a tiny bin. There's some stuff on county extension and .edu sites about small-scale farm composting - but they always have bedding mixed in with the manure. All the stats on carbon:nitrogen ratios assume you've got some straw or shavings in with the manure, and all the sites give different ratios for horse manure.

I tried one heap with sagebrush mixed in with the manure. It got hot pretty quickly, then cooled off and won't heat back up no matter how much I turn it or water it. It doesn't look done, but I am disgusted with it and ignoring it for now. My second heap is 95% manure. There's some shavings from the old chicken house, and some paper shreds from the paper shredder, and our tiny amounts of home compostables. I've watered it enough to break down the balls and keep the inside pretty moist, and I turned it last week for the first time. Much to my shock, it was steaming! I turned it more thoroughly last night, and it's uniformly hot and cooking! So there's one puzzle piece in place: just horse manure and water makes good compost.

And my last poop-related complaint: Once I manage to produce some compost, how the hell do I garden out here? I can build raised beds with cold frames, if I need to, but I don't know if I need to. The sun is so bright - should I site my garden beds near the buildings and fences so they get partial shade? Does sand + compost = dirt? What can I mulch with that won't blow away? This is all very confusing :(


  1. Funder--I have some input for you here, but I'm late to work! I'll try soon (tho I have a big honkin' parent meeting tonight, so it probably won't be that soon...)

  2. Looking forward to it, ES! I think your climate is like mine; you've just got like a thousand acre-feet of water rights to go with it. ;)

  3. Moisture is a compost pile's best friend and I'll bet out there yours dries out FAST. Keep it watered. Not soaked, but consistently damp and don't turn it TOO much. Mine gets turned once a month in the winter, more often in the summer. You may even consider covering it with a tarp. I keep mine covered for two reasons 1. If I don't the chickens quickly turn it from compost heap to compost FLAT spread EVERYWHERE 2. It composts faster under the tarp.

    I have a lil bit of everything on my heap: Horse poo, chicken poo and bedding, straw, shaving, kitchen scraps, weeds from my garden, shredded paper (newspaper, cardboard, etc.) I layer the "stuff" with a thin layer of lime and soil because you MUST have the bacteria from the soil in the heap to get it to "cook" properly. The lime helps the composting process and prevents your final product from being too acidic.

    I have two heaps and they are both fairly large (3'high X 8' long X 5' wide or so). One heap is older and more composted, the other is a newer heap where I add the fresh stuff. As the bottom layer on the newer heap breaks down, I toss it into the older heap, which is the one I use compost from.

    And yes...sand mixed with compost makes dirt, but raised beds might be your best bet out there to hold moisture IN better.

    Forget the goat poo. You'll never be able to pick it up! I just leave mine to break down and it doesn't build up at all.

  4. Our gardening efforts near you were pretty pathetic. Compost mixed with sand will give you dirt. Water and nutrients will pass through this dirt very quickly though: we had to fertilize.
    We mulched with a tarp and rocks. I know exactly what you mean about the wind blowing everything away.

    Then there's winter...I'm thinking you might have to go with the cold frames, and line them with fresh poop to keep the veggies from freezing!

  5. So I poked around in the sucky side of the compost heap today, digging a hole to bury the fireplace ashes, and it's steamy hot too. Who knows! Compost is confusing, but it does seem to thrive on neglect.

    I'm planning on raised beds, to preserve my precious good dirt. Maybe I'll line the bottoms with something - landscaping cloth or plastic? to help keep the moisture in.

    Jane, I'm on the other side of Reno from where you lived. Gardnerville is south of Reno and I'm north of it. I think it's slightly less windy here than down there, but otherwise it's pretty similar!

  6. Okay....
    So I'm finally getting back to this.

    Although I've looked into some very high-falutin' technological systems for composting my manure, I take a very simple approach.

    I bed on pellets, so it is really easy to keep the majority of the bedding out of my compost pile (I would say less than 10%). The pile is out from the end of the barn about 40-50 feet. I spread the compost in the fall, and leave just a small "starter" pile for the coming winter--mostly from the little manure collected over the summer and from a fall "stripping" of the stalls. By spring I'd say my pile is probably 30' by 30' and 8-10 feet high (as high as my little tractor bucket can reach).

    During the winter I pick my stalls nightly, if the horses have been in (I only give them access in the really bleak weather--wet and cold--except for my old retired boarder, who has 24/7 access to his stall). Each stall has it's own muck bucket and fork, so this goes quickly.

    Each weekend, the muck buckets get emptied into the tractor bucket (I know, I'm WAY spoiled! but after all, I'm dealing with five horses--at one time ten) and dropped on one side of the manure pile. I do a more intense job on the stalls, especially any wet spots (here's where bedding gets in to the pile); again, into the tractor bucket and out to the pile.

    I either pick the paddocks, or use the tractor to scrape the really popular spots; all then goes to the main pile.

    Once all that "fresh" manure is deposited, I use the tractor bucket to turn the opposite side of the pile towards/over the new material. Just like kneading bread, each week I choose a different spot to add my new material and fold from the opposite side.

    We are on the back side of the mountains, as you are, so it is a dryer climate in summer. But at that point the horses are on pasture 24/7 and I just drag the pastures with a blanket harrow to work the manure in every so often. In the winter it's not sopping wet, so I haven't ever had to tarp my pile, though once or twice it has gotten a bit soggy, it always recovers. I don't add any additional "dry" material.

    At various times this pile (or two, when there were more horses) might have actually been in one of the paddocks. The older horses pretty much leave it alone, but sometimes the babies [Jackson!] would decide it was a great place to play and romp! So now that I'm down on numbers I can leave it out of reach in my "extra" paddock.

    When I go to turn the pile it is always steaming hot. I suppose I could worry about the "optimal" tempurature, but I know that it's definitley hot enough to kill any weed seeds, parasite eggs, or other unwanted contaminants.

    It usually takes me two half days to spread the compost on the pastures (New Holland 50 bushel spreader). I'll use a little for a few planters--it's rich and dark and works just as it is for most plants. Evergreens especially like the slightly acidic nature of horse manure, but I think that composting eliminates any danger to other plants. I think I've mentioned that I'm death to plants, so I don't garden in any formal sense--no veggies and only flowers that can take care of themselves.

    I also don't have much of a problem with flies in the summer. I think if I went to the trouble of adding the fly predators to the pile I probably wouldn't have any!

    Funder--Your situation is on a much smaller scale, but I hope this is helpful! Now that I've put all this here, I think I'll copy it, and do a post at Mountain Music, so I can add some photos.

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  9. And looking back now at your original post, try incorporating your sagebrush heap a little at a time into the "hot" pile. Maybe there something in the woodiness of the brush that is slowing things down.

  10. Hey, I just want to point out that poop removal by hand is only feasible if you have ONE HORSE. I don't turn up my nose at any labor saving devices at all when you have more that one horse!! Shoot, if EvenSong could drive the tractor down the barn aisle and throw manure straight into the bucket I'd say more power to her - it gets exponentially harder with more horses. I'm just making a virtue from necessity with my wheelbarrow and manure fork!

    Anyway, ES, you have a great system. Good to know that manure is a bit acidic - everything out here is very alkaline, so maybe my compost will help balance it. And it's so cool that manure alone turns into compost with just a little help! I think it needs turning every so often, and I know it needs moisture out here.


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