01/16/2002 1:00AM

Peat moss, wood pellets to replace straw in stalls

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SEATTLE - A growing problem affecting virtually all North American Thoroughbred tracks has come to a head in the state of Washington. As a result, horsemen are in for a change when Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., opens for training Feb. 1. Straw, the traditional stall bedding material of choice, will no longer be allowed at Emerald.

"It's a problem of disposing of the used straw," said Emerald vice president Jack Hodge. "What we are talking about is 14,800 tons per season of straw mixed with manure and urine. We have always transported that material to a mushroom farm in Oregon, but that farm has gone out of business. After looking into other ways to dispose of the straw, we found that our costs would go up dramatically. Whereas we have been spending about $70,000 per year to get rid of our dirty straw, the cheapest alternative we could find would cost us about $400,000 per year. Unfortunately, we're not in a position to increase our budget to that extent."

The situation led Hodge to investigate other bedding materials, and he came up with two acceptable alternatives: peat and wood pellets.

Peat is partially decomposed sphagnum moss, which is dug out of bogs. There are an estimated billion acres of peatland in the world, and roughly a quarter of them are in Canada. It is used by gardeners to improve sandy and clay soil, and for that reason the peat used for stall bedding can be resold.

"There is a company that will take the peat, manure, and urine mixture, compost it, mix it with 10 or 20 percent topsoil, and market it to gardeners or farms," Hodge said. "They won't be paying for it, but we won't have to pay them and that makes it affordable."

Though the switch from straw to peat is clearly economically motivated, peat, which is already in use as a bedding material at Northlands Park in Edmonton and at several local farms, is considered superior to straw in several ways.

"It's the preferred bedding material as far as respiratory issues are concerned, according to a study done at the University of Kentucky," Hodge said. "It is also unbelievably absorbent, both of liquids and odors, and it provides a great cushion."

Despite the advantages of peat, Hodge knows that some horsemen will be reluctant to abandon straw as a bedding material.

"Horsemen like to look in their stalls and see the bright straw, and I understand that," he said. "Peat is dark, so it's not as aesthetically pleasing. I can guarantee you the horses aren't going to care about that, though, and I think as horsemen use the peat and discover its advantages, they will prefer it as well."

A small sampling of Portland Meadows horsemen who plan to race at Emerald are willing to at least try peat, though one who had tried it before had objections to the material.

"The problem I found was that it was too dusty," said trainer Steve Fisher. "You can cut down on the dust by watering it, but you don't really want your horse laying on a damp material."

A more enthusiastic response came from Packy and Julie McMurry, who have used peat for stall bedding at their Royal Match Stud farm in Enumclaw the past three years.

"We feel the advantages far outweigh the one disadvantage, which is that it is brown," Julie McMurry said. "It is a natural deodorant, not a perfume like wood products. It is relatively inert, and doesn't harbor the dust, mold, pollen, sprays, and fertilizer residues you find in straw. It is better for feet because of its cushioning properties, and it doesn't create the huge mounds of waste that are so difficult to dispose of."

The reason peat creates less waste than straw is that it can remain in stall much longer. Stalls bedded with straw are generally stripped every day; stalls bedded with peat need to be stripped about once a month.

"What we do is bed the stalls six to eight inches deep with a commercial grade of peat, which is coarser and much less dusty with the peat you buy in gardening stores," said McMurry. "We pick the manure out of the stalls three times per day, and we find the wet spots, turn them over, break them up and sift a little dry peat on top. We end up adding a bag of peat to the stall every four or five days to replace the peat we remove, and we strip the stall completely every four to six weeks to prevent microscopic manure build-up."

The wood pellets that can be used at Emerald are pine or fir sawdust milled into three-sixteenth inch by three-eighths inch pellets. They have many of the advantages of peat, being extremely absorbent of liquids, long-lasting in stalls, and easily disposed of because they decompose rapidly when mixed with mulch - and their lighter color makes them more aesthetically pleasing.

"Because horsemen are more familiar with wood pellets than peat, they may initially be more popular than peat," said MaryAnn O'Connell, executive secretary for the Washington HBPA.

Although the exact economic ramifications to Seattle-area horsemen of switching to peat moss or wood pellets are not yet clear, figures provided by Emerald racing secretary Grant Holcomb show that horsemen could save as much as $50 per stall per month.

The switch in bedding materials could be a blessing in disguise.

"I think tracks across the country will be watching Emerald Downs to see how this change works out," said O'Connell. "Everyone is having problems disposing of used straw. If we can solve those problems while providing a better stall environment for horses, then everyone wins."