Composting Key to Clean Water

Emily Longbrake of Country Garden Farms in Palmer holds a bucket of composted horse manure. She is standing by the rack and bag system the farm's owners devised to help horse owners clean up manure. Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage

Large amounts of animal waste dumped into landfills and left to rot can cause environmental problems.  But composting animal waste, like horse manure, can help keep land and water clean.  As part of our occasional recycling series, KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer discovers one Palmer family that has come up with a unique exchange program that just makes good horse sense.

“She cleans up her pen, puts it in the wagon, or cart, and what she will do is use this rake, and that will sift the manure from the gravel in her pen”

At F Bar J Ranch in Anchorage, horse owners clean up their horses’ stalls the old fashioned way, with a rake and a shovel.

Mary Shields works at the ranch and boards her horse Desperado here. Used straw and manure from the stalls is dumped into wheeled garden carts,

“The carts are taken away once a day and we run them down to the manure pit, where we collect it until we get enough to compost”

Shields and I take a walk to the composting area beyond the paddocks…

“We stir it once or twice a week, we add organic materials like wood chips or grass to get it cooking even more so.” “Do you know how long it takes?” “That?..was a year. And it’s quite fasciniating. And as you can see, I have my own little pile, I like to play, I like to experiment.”

One horse can poop up to 50 pounds a day, she says. F Bar J boards only 30 horses, but it is estimated that Anchorage’s woodsy Hillside area is home to five thousand horses. Do the math. And that much manure can do some damage if it is not properly disposed of.

“And we have geese, and muskrats and all kinds of critters using the creeks, so we keep them clean.”

Keeping manure out of the water table can be a challenge. While F Bar J’s composted product gets used up locally on friends gardens and by ranch projects……

A Matanuska Valley family want’s to use city horse owners’ manure as a way of helping their Palmer farm meet it’s bottom line. And they’ve come up with a unique solution

“So we said oh, hey we can bring a truck in and drop off all the hay that we are growing in the Valley and then pick up all the poop and bring it back to Palmer. That’s kind of how we started. And handling that much of a really gross material was a big challenge. So we came up with the bag system, so that the horse owners could have one cubic yard bags sitting in their yard so it’s easy for them to just scoop the poop and put it right away and not have it leak out into the ground water or anything. And we had an easy time just dropping off the hay and then picking up the bags and taking them with us.”

The black bags attract heat to get the composting process started, and are hung on light weight racks for easy handling.

The farm’s soil is full of glacial silt, and needs organic matter to keep that hay growing. Composted horse poop does the job as fertilizer.

“Just like old farmers used to do. In Alaska especially, the shipping costs for things up here are massive. So reduce dependence on outside fertilizers, and help make people aware of agriculture in Alaska. And why we need to come up with solutions to our waste and resource use.”

Longbreaksays it’s all part of the carbon cycle. The hay comes from the farm, and the manure comes back to it. It’s composted for two years, to let lots of air in to reduce methane gas emissions. Just piling up manure cuts off oxygen during the breakdown process to creates methane, a greenhouse gas. And composting manure keeps it out of the water table.

“Water contamination is a huge problem. A lot of people are worried about antibiotics and other pesticides like herbicides or pesticides going into their water, but they don’t really think about their animals contributing to that problem. ”

And another bonus.. manure composted from the hay that produced it contains no invasive species seeds.

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