January 14, 2014 Updated: January 14, 2014 at 8:25 am
As a journalist, I'm long familiar with the term "muckrake" - it has to do with exposing misconduct.
As a horse owner, I've become familiar with a different type of muck rake; it's a rake used for scooping up horse poop.
And there's plenty to scoop up. The average horse creates about 50 pounds of poop a day - or a staggering 9 tons a year.
So the question arises: What do you do with it?
One option is to have it hauled away, though not all trash companies will take horse manure. When we moved to the country, we found a company that does - Dan's Trash Service - and got a small, bright red dumpster that I dumped bucket loads of horse poop in each week. But I got tired of hauling it from the horse stalls in the back to the dumpster in the front. And, with two horses at the time, the poop piled up faster than I could carry it away. Plus, we began to wonder whether it made sense to have it hauled off to a landfill when it could stay in our pasture as fertilizer. So we started carrying it off to various spots in the pasture. We do not have a tractor and spreader for distributing it evenly across the land, though a neighbor handled that for us once.
Composting is a better option, says Jonathan Vrabec, a CSU Extension agent in El Paso County.
"I don't usually suggest to people to just spread it," Vrabec says of raw horse manure.
Weed seeds digested by a horse aren't killed by passing through the horse's digestive system, he says. So by spreading the raw manure, you could be spreading weeds across your land.
And on a smaller property, like our 5 acres, "you're going to have more manure than you can spread and more than what the land really needs." Raw manure, he says, can burn some of the pasture grasses unless there is sufficient moisture to break down the manure. Composting can kill off parasites and weed seeds in the manure and makes it a better fertilizer.
Sharon Pattee, a member of the El Paso County Forestry and Weed Advisory Committee who farms 65 acres in Fountain, doesn't compost. She either has the manure from her three horses hauled away or spreads it on her fields where she grows hay or on her native pasture. At this time of year, before the grasses start growing, "I will spread as much as time permits," she says. She wheelbarrows the manure to where she wants it, then drags a section of chain-link fence over it with her tractor.
"It does a marvelous job of breaking up the manure and spreading it well," she says.
As far as causing the spread of weeds by spreading the manure, "I would ask, what are you feeding your animal if weed seeds are going through your animal? I'm pretty picky and careful about what my horses eat so I don't further the spread of any kind of weeds," she says. If horses are eating a lot of weeds in your pasture, then you already have a weed issue, she points out.
People sometimes ask Pattee for horse manure so they can compost it themselves for fertilizer for their gardens. While that's a win-win approach, it's also hit and miss. Sometimes people are practically lined up seeking manure; other times, she might go months with no takers. "So I don't count on that."
Pattee doesn't push any particular method of manure management, as long as you choose one.
"No matter what your acreage, managing the manure problem is an issue and it is something that should be dealt with," she says. If not, it's unsightly and leads to issues with parasites and flies.
We'll probably use a mix of approaches: hauling off some manure, spreading some and starting a compost pile. We'll keep the composting small-scale, though, since we don't have the equipment for turning over the compost in a mountainous pile, which is a key step in the process.
Winter brings other issues, such as the need to use a pick ax rather than a muck rake to break the manure loose when the ground is frozen. Nor do I have a desire to muck in the darkness when I get home from work.
Relax, Pattee told me.
"This time of year, if you're not as vigilant as you might be as the temperatures go up, it's OK. You can cut yourself a break."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the countryside east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes one horse, one mule, two goats, two dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits, two guinea pigs and two parrots. Contact him: gazettebillradford on Facebook. Follow his blog at blogs.gazette.com/thecountrylife.