Horse manure

Magic1One of our SA readers wants to know what to do about the weeds that sprout from their horse manure pile, as she is concerned about spreading the weeds through her garden. She also has a problem with millipedes. Interestingly, manure and millipedes have a relationship because millipedes feed on decaying organic matter and they can lay their eggs in faecal matter. Millipedes are related to slaters. See Slaters and earwigs for controlling them in the garden.
Horse manure is often the easiest manure to obtain close to metropolitan areas. We have found horse manure to be a good source of plant nutrients and our miniature Shetland, Magic, works 24/7 to keep up supplies. Small amounts can be fermented in a bucket of water, then diluted, to produce a fertiliser tea for plants that need a boost.
But, adding uncomposted horse manure to the garden can encourage millipedes, slaters and earwigs. This is more common if you use sheet composting for the manure, a process of spreading a layer of manure on an unused garden bed, dampening it and covering it with mulch.
The best way to use fresh horse manure is to put it into the compost heap as it is a good source of nitrogen and generates a lot of heat, but there is a big difference between an active compost heap and a pile of horse manure. The manure should be mixed with dry ingredients such as straw, mulch, shredded newspapers, or dry leaves to create a good nitrogen to carbon balance. The heap should also be turned regularly to aerate the heap because aerobic bacteria require nitrogen, moisture and oxygen to work efficiently. When the compost heap is turned, newly germinated weed seeds get turned into the mixture and provide more organic matter for the bacteria to feed on. In its early stages, the heap should generate enough heat to kill off pathogens and seeds. As the composting process continues, the heap reduces in volume. As it gets cooler, you will occasionally see earwigs, slaters or millipedes in the mix but they are helping to break it down so don’t spray them with anything. When the organic matter reaches a favourable stage, earthworms move into the heap if it has contact with soil, and they digest the decomposing organic matter and turn it into worm castings. The final product, ready to be used on garden beds, is about one quarter of the volume of the original heap, friable, very dark brown in colour, and has a earthy, rainforest smell.
If you just leave horse manure in a pile to break down, it will tend to pack down and anaerobic (without oxygen) composting will occur. This is much slower, and can generate unpleasant smells. A lot of the nitrogen can be lost to the air and other nutrients can leach away when it rains.
To get horse manure to work even more quickly in a compost heap, tip it onto a hard surface and mince it a bit with the edge of a spade, because bacteria only work on the surface area of the ingredients. Producing more surface areas to feed on by chopping ingredients will greatly speed up the process.