Environmentally Friendly on the Farm

Choosing to become more environmentally sensitive on the farm is a responsible option for all of us and can be addressed in varying degrees. You don't need to scrap your tractor, invest in expensive wind-powered generators, build a new solar-roofed barn, or make any of the other currently touted myriad of expensive, drastic moves to reduce your carbon footprint. Even if your budget is small, there are many responsible practices you can implement quickly and inexpensively. In fact, these might save you money in the long run. You do, however, need to change the way you look at your life on the farm.

Earth-Friendly Option

There are many affordable, simple, and convenient ways to begin and sustain an eco-friendly lifestyle while maintaining your barn and farm. The first step is recognizing the seemingly insignificant ways we diminish natural resources and exploring more Earth-friendly options. To be successful in reducing waste means we must find ways to meet our present needs without compromising the welfare of future generations. Farms have been managed for centuries past using only renewable resources. It is time we think about returning to as many of those Earth-friendly courses of management as we can.

One very important and valuable practice we can employ is composting our animals' waste. Composting is an attractive proposition for turning on-farm organic waste materials into a farm resource.

Basics of Composting

Compost is one of nature's best mulches and solutions for soil correction, and you can use it instead of commercial fertilizers. Best of all, compost is cheap. You can make it without spending a cent. Using compost improves soil structure, texture, and aeration, and it increases the soil's water-holding capacity. Compost loosens clay soils and helps sandy soils retain water. Adding compost improves soil fertility and stimulates healthy root development in plants. The organic matter in compost provides food for microorganisms, which keep the soil in a healthy, balanced condition. Feeding the microorganisms will produce nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus naturally, so few if any soil amendments will need to be added.

Any pile of organic matter will eventually rot, but a well-chosen site can speed up the process. Look for a level, well-drained area. Keep it close enough to the barn to access. Don't put it so far away you'll neglect the pile. In cooler latitudes keep the pile in a sunny spot to trap solar heat. Look for some shelter to protect the pile from freezing cold winds, which could slow down the decaying process. In warm, dry latitudes shelter the pile in a shadier spot so it doesn't dry out too quickly.

Build the pile over soil or a section of pasture rather than concrete or asphalt, to take advantage of the earthworms, beneficial microbes, and other decomposers that will migrate up and down through the ground as the seasons change. Uncovered soil also allows for drainage. If tree roots are extending their roots into the pile, turn it frequently so they can't make headway.

Look for a spot that allows you to compost discretely, especially if you live on small acreage with neighboring property. Aim for distance and visual barriers between the pile and the neighbors.

There are two basic choices for composting stall waste: a three-sided wall allowing access with wheelbarrows or tractors, or a heap. A fence of sorts is a simple enough "structure" if you intend to hand-turn a relatively small amount of material from only a few horses. Access with a wheelbarrow for distribution of this compost will allow you to contain the material to a small area. However, if your herd is more than a few and you use a tractor for turning or moving the pile, you will need a substantial timber or concrete enclosure.

Making compost does not require a structure and can be done simply in a pile or heap given some room to use this system. The heap does need a larger space, but that will vary depending upon how many horses you keep in stalls, how much time they spend inside, and how often you change bedding. You can add soiled manure and bedding as they become available, but when the first pile is high enough, a second one should be started until the first has decomposed enough to be used. Piles can be turned regularly or not at all. However, if they are not turned, the upper portions will not totally decompose and you will have to pull them off when the compost is used. Finished compost can be taken from the bottom while new materials are still being added to the top.

Many types of bedding--including sawdust, shredded newspaper, and wood shavings--as well as wood ashes, hedge clippings, and many kinds of plant refuse from the farm, can be composted. Weeds that are heavily laden with seeds might be better left out of the compost pile if the compost is to be spread on the pasture. Even though some seeds are killed during composting, those that survive might create an unwanted weed problem.

These composting methods will produce usable product in two to six months, depending on the types of organic materials used, temperatures, and how often the compost is turned (or if it is turned).

Compost should be added annually to your fields and pastures if you are using it to build good soil. The best time to add compost to the pasture is during fall or spring tilling. It can be added to the soil when planting trees, shrubs, annuals, or perennials. Compost is also excellent mulch or top-dressing around flowers, vegetables, shrubs, and trees. If used as mulch, the compost need not be completely finished, especially if applied in the fall.

An open pile is convenient if you turn it with a tractor, as you have access to all sides. Our pile is approximately 10 feet in diameter and is in constant evolution. We use a loader on the tractor and the Bobcat to turn it every few weeks. We remove fully composted material off the backside of the pile, then turn the pile onto itself. Not all of our compost material makes it to the pasture, however. It is too valuable in planting beds or reseeding areas.

Take-Home Message

We have covered in-depth just one of the many ways in which you can help your farm become more "green." In the sidebars we've offered year-round tips on ways you can make a difference with your current farm management, and, thus, impact future generations.

About the Author

Virginia Preston

Virginia Preston is a horse owner and free-lance writer based near Lexington, Ky.

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