Small Farm Efficiency

Small Farm Efficiency

Photo: Stephanie L. Church, Editor-in-Chief

A growing number of owners want to keep their horses at home on small farms; here are some tips on doing it wisely.

There was a time in the United States when the majority of people lived on farms, large and small, or at least resided in rural communities. Horses were the power to plow, cultivate, and harvest, as well as transport the family. The development of sophisticated farming equipment and technology as part of the industrial revolution changed everything. Today, a very small segment of the country's population produces the food and fiber consumed by the populace, and an even smaller segment uses horses for its farm work.

Cities grew during that changeover period as people left rural communities in droves for greater challenges and opportunities in metropolitan areas. Rural communities shrank as farms became larger and fewer, and some small towns even disappeared.

In recent years there has been a return to the land. People in ever-increasing numbers are seeking limited acreage where they can enjoy the rural way of life, including horses. For those with the financial means, making money from the small farm or acreage is not a goal; but for others, the small farm must at least be operated efficiently in order to be affordable.

As this segment of the population has grown, economists and extension agents have studied the dynamics of small farms and have come up with suggestions and approaches that can make them economically feasible.

Included among individuals who have worked and studied in this field are Terry E. Poole, a retired extension agent from Frederick County, Maryland. Also, a group of five extension specialists from Oregon State University, with Linda J. Brewer, senior faculty research assistant, serving as coordination editor, produced an in-depth paper titled "Managing Small-Acreage Horse Farms." This article draws on information from their publication.

Poole offers the following history concerning how the U.S. Census of Agriculture has defined a farm through the years:

1850-1869  $100 in agriculture product sales;

1870-1899  $500 in sales, or three acres;

1900-1909  One full-time person;

1910-1924  $250 in sales, three acres, or one full-time person;

1925-1949  $250 in sales or three acres;

1950-1958  $250 and three acres, or $250 in sales;

1959-1974  $50 and 10 acres, or $250 in sales; and

1975-present  $1,000 in sales.

Today, Poole says, the USDA defines a small farm as one with a gross farm income of less than $250,000 per year. The USDA estimates that 92% of the farms in the United States are small farms, based on this definition.

Lifestyle Choice

Most of the small farms today are owned by individuals who have other jobs or careers. Living on a small farm is a lifestyle choice rather than a way to make a living for these folks.

Poole says that studies show that most small farm operators come from nonfarm backgrounds and are in "critical need" of basic and fundamental information on farming and technical assistance to help get the farm business operation started in the right direction. The good news, he says, is that there is a great deal of information available through extension services all across the country.

Poole notes that when an individual purchases a small farm, one of the most important aspects is that he or she pursues an enterprise that truly interests them.

While we are primarily concerned with the small horse farm, the following bit of advice from Poole is applicable to all small farm enterprises: "Efficient, well-planned operations that work within the finances and labor restraints of the operator are going to be profitable whatever the farm size. Select an enterprise that meets the limits of size and financial commitment you set in your long-range plan. Start out small, learn as you go, and try not to place such a debt load on your enterprise that you lose the fun of farming."

That last sentence is certainly applicable to the small horse farm. Nothing can destroy the fun more quickly that to realize that you have way too many horses for your acreage--and your pocketbook.

Setting reasonable goals for the small horse farm is very important. With today's economic downturn and depressed market for horses, launching a breeding operation is not all that alluring unless one knows of a specific need to be filled.

For the most part, the small farm operated by horse owners is aimed at providing food and space for family-owned pleasure horses. Whether it's more economically feasible to board them on a small farm than to board them at a stable depends on how efficiently the small farm is operated. An important element in this equation is time. If you leave for work before daybreak and return home after dark, with little time available on weekends, trying to operate a small horse farm on your own might not be a good decision. It takes time and effort for routine maintenance and to make sure that the horses are getting the proper nutrition, exercise, and care.

That being said, let's assume that you have the time and desire to operate a small horse farm and want to learn more about getting the job done in appropriate fashion. Here are some goals for a well-managed small acreage horse farm, as presented by the specialists from Oregon State University:

  • A productive pasture with plenty of grass and few weeds.
  • Less dust during the dry season and less mud during the wet season.
  • Healthy horses free of problems associated with dust, manure, mud, and toxic plants.
  • Manure managed as an important resource on the farm or recycled off the farm.
  • Good stewardship of your property and the water that flows through, across, and below it.
  • Satisfied owners who are able to conveniently care for their animals without dreading the chore (something that can happen with overpopulation or lack of financial resources.)

The Oregon State specialists add this: "The key to meeting these goals is to recognize that horses, grass, manure, soil, and water are interconnected. How you manage one affects the others. When, where, and how long your animals graze affects grass regrowth, weed competition, and the safety of your well (or ground) water. How you deal with water runoff affects your horse's health, nearby streams, and your own enjoyment of the property. By properly managing each aspect of your farm, you will have greener pastures, healthy horses, and more personal satisfaction."

Grazing Realities

Of utmost importance, say the specialists, is proper grazing of pastures. Overgrazing can lead to problems with dust in dry weather, mud when it rains, and sand colic (from inadvertent consumption of sand while grazing or eating off the ground). In addition, an overgrazed pasture provides an excellent habitat for the development of internal parasites that can impair a horse's health. On top of all that, weeds easily infest overgrazed pastures.

Horses in the wild do limited damage to the environment because they stay in one place for a short period of time and, when the food supply gets short, they move on. That type of activity isn't appropriate or practical on a small horse farm.

Here, in part, are some of the problems involved with horses and pastures, as presented by the Oregon State specialists:

"Horses are heavy animals, with big, often steel-shod hooves. Unlike other livestock, they can be very active and they enjoy running and playing. In contrast, mature cattle tend to eat, lie down while they digest their meal, and make an occasional trip to the water trough. Horse owners take pleasure in watching their animals run, play, and 'kick up their heels.' Too much of this activity concentrated on small acreage can, however, severely damage pastures. The horse's natural way of running with its flipping hoof action damages forage by cutting off or uprooting plants. Unlike sheep and cattle, horses have both upper and lower teeth. They also have very active lips. With a short tongue and a sensitive, strong upper lip, horses bring food to their front teeth and bite. As a result, they are very efficient grazers--sometimes too efficient. Horses have the ability to eat grasses right to the soil surface. When this happens too often, it kills the grass ... Horses are recreational grazers and will continue to graze after they have met their nutritional requirements."

For example, the writers point out that horses will graze an average of 14 hours per day, compared to nine hours for cattle and sheep. Horses also are on their feet a good deal. They spend only about one hour lying down, compared to nine hours for cattle and 11 hours for sheep.

What this all means is that farm owners must take steps to protect horse pastures from abuse. They can do this in several ways, according to our experts. A basic approach involves setting aside a dry lot so that handlers can remove horses from the grazing area during specified periods each day after their nutritional requirements have been met.

Still another approach involves rotational grazing by dividing the grazing areas into a series of mini-pastures. After the horses have grazed down one segment, the owners move them to another, keeping them there until they graze the grass to the appropriate length.

Grass growth, of course, is dependent on many factors, particularly the weather. Normally, the growth is greatest in spring and tapers off as summer advances. This means there can be an overabundance of grass during some periods and a lack of grass during others. When there is too much growth, the pasture might require mowing.

Muckety Muck

Gathering manure from each mini- pasture after you remove the horses can cut down on parasite problems.

Manure constitutes a problem on most horse farms. A 1,200-pound horse, say the Oregon State specialists, will produce an average of one cubic foot of fresh manure every day.

They offer these six tips for handling manure:

  • Site manure storage and compost piles to protect surface water.
  • Isolate waste piles from streams and irrigation ditches.
  • Reduce stall waste volume by installing mats so that less bedding is required.
  • Cover waste piles to control moisture levels, reduce runoff, and control flies.
  • Compost manure.
  • Spread manure and compost when plants can use it.

When a small farm is home to large animals, such as horses, one must be conscious of the effect manure and runoff can have on water supplies. It can contaminate streams and even wells. If the drinking water is supplied by a well, you should have the water tested for contaminants.

The Oregon State specialists also suggested a buffer zone be established between pastures and water sources. This could be anything from a strip of ungrazed grass to trees. The buffer zone serves to filter some of the contaminants before they reach the water supply.

Take-Home Message

The above only scratches the surface of what you should consider when operating an efficient small horse farm. Conditions differ, depending on location and weather patterns. What management measures might be appropriate in Minnesota, for ex-ample, might not work in Florida. Different types of grass flourish in different soil types. Some need a lot of moisture; others need very little. The good news is that help is out there in the form of extension specialists, such as those quoted in this article. They work in county extension offices and at universities all across the country and have a wealth of free information to help you succeed on your small horse farm.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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