GEORGETOWN — Tucked away on four acres at one of the world's most well-known Thoroughbred breeding farms is a site rarely noticed by the thousands of guests who visit Midway each year to gawk at top stallions and Kentucky Derby winners.
Centrally located, but still out of sight, the four acres are one of two places at Three Chimneys Farm where two men work year-round to turn horse muck, a mixture that includes manure, into compost.
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"It's a lot of work," said David Craig, agricultural and maintenance manager at Three Chimneys. "It's not a short-term investment."
In recent years, farms that compost their own horse muck to reuse in pastures and flower beds have sprung up across Central and Northern Kentucky.
Farmers facing a tough economy, the increasing price of fertilizer and the desire to go green have undertaken a task that requires months of monitoring and turning windrows of muck because it saves money and is better for the environment and water quality, experts say.
It also eliminates the cost of having manure hauled off the property.
The farms range from Three Chimneys, a 2,000-acre farm that has composted muck for about five years, to Folsom Ridge Farm in Grant County, where farm manager Todd Foster began composting muck from about 20 horses on the 200-acre farm this past spring.
Establishments such as Keeneland have considered starting this type of composting.
The crumbly, odorless finished product improves soil quality and reduces the volume of the muck about 75 percent, said Carolyn Oldfield, a coordinator for the non-profit Thoroughbred Resource Conservation and Development Council in Georgetown.
Oldfield, who is also employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, keeps a small bucket of the compost from Scott County's Triple J Farm in her office to show curious visitors. She scoops out some of the mixture with a large, plastic kitchen spoon.
"A beef cattle waste and a horse muck, that's a perfect carbon-nitrogen ratio, and it really just looks almost like coffee, a beautiful material," Oldfield said.
Aerobic hot composting
In the late '90s, few farms were composting muck when the Thoroughbred RC&D received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to start the process with a handful of demonstration farms, Oldfield recalls.
The process, called aerobic hot composting, requires mechanical turning of windrows as farmers monitor temperature and moisture. The long, narrow rows, usually about 3 to 5 feet high, are turned for about 8 to 12 weeks after they reach 150 degrees. The rows stop heating once the process is complete.
At least 50 farms in the Bluegrass now compost muck, Oldfield said.
Two of the Thoroughbred RC&D's four demonstration farms in Woodford, Bourbon and Scott counties have stopped composting. But representatives from one of the farms have recently expressed interest in starting again.
Money became a problem for some of the demonstration farms after the Thoroughbred RC&D returned a rented compost turner the farms were using, Oldfield said. A windrow turner for a medium-size farm can cost about $14,000, according to Central Equipment Co. in Lexington, which advertises a turner that requires a 45- to 75-horsepower tractor with creeper gear.
Craig and another Three Chimneys farm employee, Jimmy Fleener, worked among the rows of muck in various stages of the composting process, on a recent day in December as freezing rain began to fall.
Three Chimneys has two sites for composting — one at four acres, the other at two. They are in the center of the property so trucks hauling muck from barns don't use more gas than necessary. The farm has about 400 to 500 horses and composts about 1,148 tons of muck per year, said Brad Caron, director of facilities.
"There's no downside to this," said Caron, who pointed toward pastures at Three Chimneys that he said were greener because they had been treated with the compost.
Three Chimneys Farm has cut expenses about 40 percent by not having a commercial hauler remove muck from the farm, he said.
The owner of Creech Services, a Lexington-based company that hauls manure from farms, said the composting operations haven't hurt business.
Tom Creech, whose business also creates the certified-organic Thoroughbred Compost, said it costs about $300 per load — about 20 tons — to haul muck from farms.
Farms that compost need permits to sell the material.
Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County is certified to sell off the farm. But the farmers there use 80 percent of it themselves to replenish the soil and grow healthy plants, said John Bell, one of the owners.
Elmwood uses its own materials, including raw vegetables and shavings from a chicken hatchery, as well as horse muck given to them from other farms.
Farm manager Todd Foster of Folsom Ridge Farm in Grant County said composting muck isn't as hard as it may initially seem to some farmers. He started this past spring after taking a class sponsored by the Thoroughbred RC&D.
"Ever since then, I have been hooked," Foster said. "The one thing that did it for me was that the price of fertilizer skyrocketed this year."
He said he wants to completely stop using commercial fertilizer in about four years after his soil has become conditioned enough. Many of the farmers who compost muck still use some fertilizer to add nutrients or because they don't have enough muck to compost.
Keeneland has about 900 loads of manure hauled away each year, said Jim Williams, director of communications at the racetrack. Williams said manure is "a major issue for any racetrack." He said Keeneland officials have discussed starting a permanent composting operation, and experimented with composting over the summer.
Blue Grass Stock Yards Co. in Lexington has also considered starting a composting process similar to what's happening on the farms in Central Kentucky.
The company currently gives cattle waste to several farms in the area, said Jim Akers, chief operations officer. Those farms use the cattle waste for composting or they spread it onto their land.