Study Evaluates Horse Waste, Feed Management Practices

Study Evaluates Horse Waste, Feed Management Practices

55% of horse owners surveyed use sacrifice areas in their operations.


Feed and waste management practices to reduce environmental contamination are hot topics in today's equine industry. There is a strong correlation between a horse's daily feed consumption and the composition and amount of waste he excretes, and excess nutrients excreted in horse waste can contaminate waterways.

A group of researchers led by Michael Westendorf, PhD, associate extension specialist in the Rutgers University Department of Animal Sciences, conducted a study evaluating feed and manure management practices on New Jersey horse farms to develop a profile of what practices well-managed facilities are carrying out. The team said this would help them develop targeted best management practice (BMP) programs addressing areas of concern.

The team distributed a survey that included questions about feed and forage quality, feeding management, manure management, and pasture management to 700 owners of farms nearest to two major watersheds. From those, the team received 242 usable surveys.

The team evaluated the surveys to determine whether the horse farms were using BMPs to prevent water pollution and control runoff. On horse farms, potential contamination sources include improper manure disposal, incorrect manure spreading or fertilization practices, and overstocking pastures. The state of New Jersey requires that all farms store manure at least 100 feet from water sources, such as streams or wetlands, and 96% of respondents were in compliance with this regulation. Additionally, the majority of farm operators surveyed indicated they'd implemented at least one commonly recommended farm management BMP:

  • 81% practice rotational grazing;
  • 73% drag pastures to break up manure clumps;
  • 67% considered manure nutrient content in soil fertility decisions;
  • 57% had performed a soil test for nutrient content and pH; and
  • 55% use sacrifice or rest areas.

Changing gears, the researchers asked participants to describe feeding practices on their farms; they hoped to gain a better understanding of how nutrients going into the horse were managed, as excessive excretion of some nutrients—such as phosphorus—in feces and urine can negatively affect water sources. Previous research results indicated that owners overfeed horses phosphorus by an average of 159% of their daily requirements. Key findings regarding feeding management practices included:

  • When owners needed to dispose of unused feed, 46.5% dumped the feed in their manure pile (the recommended method), while 53.5% used either a dumpster or field to dispose of unused feed.
  • When it comes to planning a horse's diet decisions, 60% of owners said they balance their own horses' diets or had no plan at all. Only 25.5% of owners sought assistance from professionals such as equine nutritionists, veterinarians, or extension services. The remaining 14.5% sought advice from their feed store.
  • Horse owners mostly fed hay or grazed animals on pasture (98%). Of those using a commercial grain, 78% used a bagged product, 11.5% bought in bulk, and 5% fed either whole grains or no grain at all. Forty-one percent of owners added other concentrates to their horses’ diets, such as beet pulp, rice bran, or wheat bran.
  • 57% of horse owners administered one to two supplements, daily, to their horses.
  • 34% of horse owners reported they were actively taking steps to reduce their horses' phosphorus excretion; however, they did not describe their methods in the survey.

Take-Home Message

The team concluded that surveyed horse owners understand the importance of utilizing BMPs, including rotational grazing, use of sacrifice areas, performing soil tests, and reducing phosphorus levels in the diet, but not all of them practiced them properly.

Westendorf recommended owners implement best management practices, such as the use of sacrifice areas and rotational grazing together, to improve minimize horse farms’ environmental impact.

Educational programs should be focused on proper disposal of waste feed (hay and grain). Owners should dispose of unused feed properly—in a manure pile, which allows even distribution of the waste and manure.The team also suggested that future training should be offered for horse owners with emphasis on feed decisions and management in order to minimize overfeeding of nutrients, such as phosphorous

The study, "Dietary and Manure Management Practices on Equine Farms in Two New Jersey Watersheds," was published in August in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science

About the Author

Kristen M. Janicki, MS, PAS

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen began her current position as a performance horse nutritionist for Mars Horsecare, US, Inc., and Buckeye Nutrition, in 2010. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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