Controlling Ammonia in the Barn

That noxious smell of ammonia in your livestock barn is more than just an assault to the nose; it’s a health risk to your animal – and to you, as well. Even low levels of ammonia can cause upper respiratory tract problems for livestock, putting them at risk for pneumonia and other serious illnesses, studies have revealed. Respiratory irritants can become major and costly health issues. RISKS OF AMMONIA Ammonia, which occurs naturally in urine and manure, seeps through bedding and, in the case of horses, into stall mats. Bacteria feed on the nutrients in urea and produce ammonia, a noxious gas that rises and is inhaled by your animal, particularly if he spends a lot of time in a closed-up barn because of cold winter temperatures. At best, the acrid gas creates an unpleasant stench; at worst, it damages tissue in the animal’s respiratory tract and affects mucus membranes. Possible results? Pneumonia, heaves, asthma, or respiratory infections. Young animals, and, in particular, foals are especially susceptible to ammonia’s damaging effects, with their immature respiratory system and because they spend a great deal of time lying in stall bedding, says Dr. Frederick Harper, extension horse specialist for the University of Tennessee. About 15 percent of all foals have severe respiratory disease before they reach the end of their first year, Harper says in a study. “It is important to reduce the level of ammonia in foaling stalls, and all stalls in barns where foals reside,” he writes. Animals recovering from injury also are more exposed to ammonia’s toxic fumes when they lie in stall bedding. CONTROL AMMONIA BUILD-UP You can control ammonia buildup with several methods. First, use quality bedding material, such as pine shavings or straw, which also easily can be cleaned out and replaced. Remove soiled bedding daily and replace with fresh bedding. Give the barn a thorough cleaning weekly, to remove what might have been missed in daily cleanings. Finally, provide good ventilation so that airflow will flush stale air from the barn and allow fresh air to enter. Good ventilation allows a barn to “breathe,” reducing ammonia, odors, and humidity, so the structure stays fresher and drier even in freezing weather. Such measures control, but can’t prevent, ammonia buildup. Indeed, even if you’re meticulous in cleaning your barn and stalls, they’ll still have some degree of ammonia, whether or not it’s noticeable. You can also use stall deodorizers to neutralize ammonia and absorb odors and moisture. This will keep your barn dry while protecting you and your animals from the negative effects of ammonia emissions.