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Nothing goes to waste in rural Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2012 12:35 am | Updated: 1:52 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - As April’s warmth begins to melt the snow back and my indoor garden begins to poke up, I start thinking about ... poop.

Yep, one important fact of critter care is the inevitable byproduct. With 15 sled dogs, two pet dogs, three horses and a few laying hens, I know I’ll have a lot to deal with during the spring thaw. Fortunately, around here the one thing we do not call it is “waste.”

Just the shipping for a 50-pound sack of commercial fertilizer from Fairbanks to the Bush costs more than $20 by mail and significantly more if sent air freight. Consequently, except for small amounts on house plants or a rare boost when the horses overgraze the lawn, when it comes to fertilizer we make our own. Or, more to the point, the critters make it for us.

Our Icelandic horses produce the most valuable manure. Even though they spend a considerable amount of time free-ranging, for much of the year we keep them penned during the day, partly to keep them handy when we are using them frequently, but also to keep them from becoming obese from wild forage.

(This year, despite extended periods of 40 below and knee-deep snow, Meyla and Mr. B. gained too much weight on wild forage, and even 26-year-old Dropi kept his weight up with just a little supplemental feed.)

Corralling the horses means corralling their manure, which otherwise is left scattered across the frozen marshlands or piled about the yard for a time-intensive clean up once the snow melts. The pen is big enough that, with succeeding layers of snow, I don’t feel the need to clean it until after spring thaw. Once things dry a bit in the May sun, I haul hand-cart loads to the garden to be composted in a corner until the following year.

During the winter, I keep a bucket of compostable kitchen scraps frozen but handy on the porch, which I periodically thaw and dump into an old 55-gallon drum in the garden. In spite of the large rust holes (I mean drain holes) in the bottom, each spring the drum thaws into a stinking mess. Mixing in some horse manure and then burying it in a big compost pile promptly cures both the smell and any flies it would otherwise attract.

Over the summer, I clean the corral weekly, or daily if manure is in high demand for manure tea or composting other refuse. I am a lazy composter, so I rarely turn piles. The horse manure heats everything up on the inside, killing weed seeds and speeding decomposition. The following spring if the outer layer isn’t “done” or might be contaminated with live weed seeds, I just scrape it off to incorporate in the next pile before spreading the rest on the garden.

Composted horse manure works wonders. I like to dump a shovel-full or two into large holes dug for broccoli and other sets, luring in earthworms and giving the plants extra rich soil that holds water like sponge, resists packing or hardening the way low-humus soil does and provides nutrients throughout the growing season.

Adding a thick layer of compost to my log raised beds, along with a few buckets of sand laboriously horse-packed from a half-mile away, allows me to successfully grow corn during all but the coldest summers. In the fall, I sift several buckets of this rich, light soil and store it until the following spring. Mixed with perlite, it has proven to be a great seed-starting medium.

Pumpkins and other heavy-feeders love growing in nearly straight compost and thrive on manure tea, made by soaking a half-gallon of fresh horse manure in a bucket of water for a few days.

Because horses should not graze on land fertilized with their own “waste,” I hoard the cleanings of the chickens jealously. The potent droppings need to be composted or diluted to prevent burning, but their high-nitrogen content really helps the heavily grazed lawn rebound. This almost eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers that lack many essential nutrients, would damage the “wildlife” of worms and bugs and bacteria that help the lawn thrive and, finally, would leach off to contaminate the river.

Of course, once composted, chicken manure works most excellently on any other plant needing high nitrogen, as well.

Most problematic are the piles of dog residue. Unless treated with more tender loving care than I have time for, this compost will not heat up, and it can potentially contain parasites dangerous to humans. I let these piles cold-compost for several years. Turning at least the top part of the pile, if not rolling it over completely, helps the stubborn stuff decompose, and reduces weed growth.

Even after five years of decomposition I only spread this on the most distant fenced area of grass used just for grazing horses.

Nope, not much goes to “waste” around here. Poop ... it’s so much more than a four-letter word.

Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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