Stu Hutson 352-392-0400
Lori Warren firstname.lastname@example.org, 352-392-1957
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On June 9, the final horse race of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, will run. But there’ll be more than confetti to pick up afterwards.
Horse tracks like Belmont Park produce up to 600 cubic feet of manure a day—with or without a race. Add to that the thousands of horse farms around the country and you have one big problem.
But researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) say those road apples may soon be marketable.
The trick is composting, a process that breaks down organic waste into fertilizer. While a well established practice for cow manure, composting has never been applied to horses—for good reason.
“With horses, you’re not just collecting the feces. You have to take all the bedding and other mess that’s in a stall with the horse,” said Lori Warren, a UF equine nutritionist. “Until now, that meant dealing with a lot of junk filler — mostly wood chips or straw — that landed you with something that would barely make a decent mulch.”
Consequently, horse waste was usually taken to a dump or spread in empty fields.
“Horses have been overlooked because there just haven’t been enough of them to really matter,” Warren said. But the horse population has skyrocketed since the late 1990s and new environmental regulations make disposal more expensive, she added.
“In Florida, we’re expecting some pretty major restrictions to come down in the next few years,” Warren said. “So a lot of us are just trying to get a head start on turning a negative into a positive.”
Composting horse waste has been tried before. Keenelands Racetrack, near Lexington, Ky., tried and abandoned the process because it didn’t yield viable fertilizer. Instead, they’ve returned to the costly process of shipping waste hundreds of miles to a farm where it’s used to grow mushrooms.
Butch Lehr, operations manager at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, said that his racetrack employs an operation called Equine Organic. The company carts the waste away and composts it; however, it has yet to develop a viable fertilizer from the waste it collects.
A viable composting method is important because horse waste contains large amounts of nutrients such as phosphorous. Most are essential to fertilizer, but raw manure releases nutrients too fast, polluting the environment, Warren said.
With composting, bacteria digest and excrete those nutrients as part of complex organic compounds.
“You’re basically turning it into a time-release fertilizer,” said Sara Dilling, a graduate student working with Warren. “And the heat that the bacteria produce as they’re digesting everything kills off any type of bad bacteria that could hurt people. So you’re making it safer, too.”
At UF’s Horse Education Center near Gainesville, Dilling regularly checks eight test piles of compost for temperature, moisture and pH to measure how different additives affect the process. The 10-foot piles are typically above 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside, some close to 130 degrees.
“The biggest problem we have right now is time,” Dilling said. “The compost we have would have to sit for five months before it’s anywhere near viable.”
The piles are given variable amounts of water from a computerized sprinkler system. Additives such as uric acid are added to slow down or speed up bacterial growth.
Even different bedding types are being tried. Sawdust would be ideal for composting, Dilling said. Wood chips don’t offer enough surface area for the bacteria and straw, the most popular racetrack bedding, has a waxy coat that protects it from digestion.
A few miles from the UF center, Lambholm South horse farm began composting horse waste six years ago with help from UF researchers. Today, with nearly 300 horses, the farm produces about 150 cubic yards of fertilizer a month.
“It’s still not up to the exact quality that we want,” said Dana Camp, head of Lambholm’s composting program. “But we use it to help seed yards, and we actually sell a fair amount of it, too. So it’s starting to become that positive that we’re looking for.”
To hear one of the buyers, they don’t have much further to go.
“You wouldn’t want to use it for inside plants, but for outdoor trees and bushes, I’ve never found anything better to pot them in,” said Bill Swann, owner of the nearby Nature’s Pharmacy Nursery.
“From a consumer perspective, there’s no doubt there’s a future for this stuff,” he said. “Now we’ve just got to get the horse farmers to believe in their own … well, dung.”