Green Farm Makeover
We live in a changing world, but lately things have been evolving a little faster than planned; nonpoint pollution (caused by runoff during rainfall or snowmelt that picks up and carries away pollutants) and heavy demands on fresh water are decreasing our world's supply of drinking water; wood products are scarcer; and an increasing amount of farmers are growing grains for biofuels rather than for food. Climate change threatens to affect everything in our daily lives from what we wear (more sunscreen protection) to where we live (northern climates with less temperature extremes).
Can we as horse owners make a few changes to our horse keeping habits to help lessen our draw on the ecosystem? Sure, we can make everyday changes such as recycling and conserving water, but what else can we do to reduce our impact?
In answer to this we talked with several individuals in the horse industry with interests in environmental impact, as well as horse owners with experience in eco-sensitive horse keeping.
A Model Farm
Kate Norris, district manager for the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District in Nokesville, Va., is a horsewoman who's made a career out of protecting natural resources. For the past several years, one big project Norris and her colleagues have been working on is The Chesapeake Bay-Friendly Horse Farm Project, which showcases environmentally sensitive horse keeping practices. "Horse owners many times want to see the practices in place before they adopt them," she says. "What we did was start with a farm that was environmentally in poor condition."
Originally, horses on this property were allowed direct access into a stream for drinking, which means substances such as manure, urine, and soil from erosion were polluting surface water. "Pastures were just overgrazed, often muddy areas for horses to stand in," she explains. All this adds up to potential pollutant runoff eventually making its way to the nearby Chesapeake Bay, an important and biologically diverse water body facing serious pollutant threats.
So the Conservation District, combining forces with the landowner, other government agencies, and many private businesses, created the project's "green" model farm for educational purposes. Since the farm's completion in early 2010, hundreds have toured the site. "The opportunity to see green practices on the ground and the exchange of ideas and information makes it a dynamic learning opportunity for horse owners," explains Norris.
The green practices on this farm are many, but a few that Norris highlights are the sacrifice areas and the solar-powered compost setup.
"If you are trying to be ecologically sensitive, the greenest area (on a horse property) is the sacrifice area," says Norris. "This is a confinement area that you sacrifice as pasture for the sake of the rest of your pasture system."
Horses should be confined to the sacrifice area to preserve pastures anytime the plots need to rest and regrow and to protect them from trampling in wet weather. Keeping horses off saturated soils and dormant or frozen pasture plants during winter is critical to maintaining healthy pastures the following summer, she notes. During the summer good pasture management means never grazing below three inches of plant growth. All this ensures that grasses have enough green leafy reserves left over to allow for rapid regrowth and good plant health in the spring. Vigorous grasses will utilize nutrients more effectively in order to grow more leaves, outcompeting weeds and, thus, preventing soil erosion, says Norris.
"So you have this sacrifice area, but instead of it being dirt and mud, consider some all-weather footing," Norris says. The project's Virginia office recommends footings such as pit fines. These are a recycled product--fines are cleaned off quarry conveyer belts and make up a light gravel dust. Many times they are available free from quarries, although you might still pay for their transport.
"It's a pretty green way to surface your sacrifice area so your horses won't slip," says Norris. The kitty-litter-like product is simple to clean (i.e., pick up manure), and it reduces erosion and polluted runoff that can affect nearby streams or water bodies.
"While you're at it," adds Norris, "ask your quarry if they have any used conveyor belts." These can be cut and used as stall mats, in aisleways, on paths between barns and walkways--more cost-saving ways to recycle while simultaneously reducing mud in areas that encounter moisture and averting potential runoff.
Installing rain gutters and a roof runoff system on your barns and shelters to divert rainwater away from your horse's sacrifice area is another green consideration. This keeps rainwater clean by preventing nutrients (from manure and urine) and sediments (from mud) from washing into nearby creeks or water bodies. Plus, there's the added benefit of reducing mud on your property. You can divert clean rainwater to a well-vegetated area of your property such as forest or an undisturbed corner of pasture. You might even consider capturing rainwater in a rain barrel for your garden or in a stock watering tank for your horses. However, remember to put the water to use before it becomes a stagnant mosquito breeding ground.
Alongside your sacrifice area add a few native plants as "mud managers" to further reduce runoff. Trees and shrubs slow the flow of water, absorb it, and filter out sediments and pollutants. Native trees and shrubs benefit the environment by providing habitat for wildlife such as birds and small animals. Horse owners can help offset habitat loss by planting or growing a variety of vegetation types that provide food and cover for wildlife. The added benefit of using native plants is they are acclimated to local weather patterns and pests, reducing or even eliminating the need for fertilizers, pesticides, water, and lawn maintenance equipment.
Vegetation benefits environmental health, whether it's in the form of native plants or pastures. "Imagine a marble rolling across glass versus shag carpet," says Norris. "Raindrops do the same thing. If you have bare hills the raindrops are going to roll across more quickly, possibly taking soil with them. But if you have lush grass, the nice, thick vegetation acts as a speed bump to slow rainwater down and allow it to soak in. Not only can you and your horse farm be green but (the vegetation) can also act as a buffer by slowing the flow of runoff from neighboring uphill properties."
Pasture management is often a point of serious concern for environmental educators that work with horse owners. Rotational grazing, however, is one technique (along with your sacrifice area) to keep pastures from becoming overgrazed and soils from being compacted. To incorporate rotational grazing into your horse keeping practices, crossfence or divide your pastures into several smaller areas using temporary fencing (e.g., plastic step-in posts used in conjunction with electric wire filament tape). After your horses have grazed one area down to three or four inches of grass, mow weeds and tall grasses and harrow the manure piles, spreading them so plants can break down and utilize the nutrients. Then rest that area, allowing plants to regrow. Turn horses back out on a pasture area once the grass has recovered to six to eight inches tall.
The pasture management practice that equine veterinarian and horse owner Karen Hayes, DVM, from northern Idaho, is most excited to see take hold at horse farms is the use of automatic hay feeders.
"The image in our minds of horses grazing in a pasture is probably unrealistic," she explains. "The reason is that the native grasses are probably mostly long gone. Horses are supposed to nibble, step, nibble, step, eating small meals throughout the whole day. But when we try to maintain horses on pastures we run into thinning pastures, with the bare spots filling in with high-sugar weeds."
Hybridized commercial pasture seeds have been developed to support the cattle and sheep industries. These pasture grasses are designed to produce sugars and simple carbohydrates so the animals eating them grow to market weight in a short period of time. In horses this high-sugar diet combined with not enough exercise or activity can lead to many metabolic problems.
Some farm managers encourage bumper growth of high-sugar grasses with herbicides and fertilizers "to make them look like the cover of a magazine," Hayes says. As a result, she and other equine practitioners are seeing many overweight horses in their practices with diseases such as equine Cushing's disease, laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, and insulin resistance.
"Perhaps what we should be doing," Hayes suggests, "is keeping horses in drylots and buying hay--high-fiber, low-nonstructural-carbohydrate hay to mimic what horses would have in the wild--and use automatic feeders."
Then, she notes, horses could have multiple small feedings over the course of a day. "This way we would be feeding horses more closely to how they were designed by nature, and we wouldn't have to worry about damaging the earth or our horses," Hayes explains. "This becomes even more of an issue as we head towards a more crowded planet and it becomes prohibitively expensive to own land and have enough pasture for horses."
Denise Harris of Triple J Ranch, a 20-horse boarding facility in Issaquah, Wash., is well-versed in these feeders, as she has them in all her stalls. Harris has consequently discovered that being green in this way also saves money.
"It was a leap of faith at first to get them (automatic feeders) because they are a huge investment," Harris says. "The way I justified it is that since I don't live by the barn, either we would have to hire someone to feed or we would have to be there ourselves at all hours of the day. By using the feeders and not hiring someone, in a couple of years we will have recouped our costs." Harris' horses are fed consistent amounts at consistent times, and they can have several meals throughout the day.
Efficient Waste Removal
Harris also has adopted a green way to handle the byproduct of the feeders, horse manure--namely 50 pounds of manure per day from each of the 18 horses currently at her barn.
"Initially being green wasn't our goal, but economically it ended up making good sense," explains Harris. "We don't have space to make an enormous pile so we were going to pay to haul it off--at a cost of over $1,000 per month. It just made good financial sense to instead invest in a compost system that would work for us."
Triple J Ranch uses a unique aerated static pile (ASP) method for composting in which an electric blower pumps air into the compost pile. The oxygen helps feed the microorganisms present in manure that digest the raw manure and speed this process along. A byproduct of the microbial activity is heat, which kills weed seeds, parasites, pathogens, and fly larvae. Properly managed aerobic compost piles smell earthy, not offensive, Harris notes. And she says this composting method produces a high-quality finished product in a fast, chore-efficient manner, reducing the volume of material by almost 50%.
Norris also uses this composting method. "It takes a liability, a muck mountain, and turns it into a desirable product you can potentially even sell," she notes. Furthermore, it doesn't require a tractor to turn stall waste, which many smaller horse properties often don't have access to. Because the Chesapeake Bay-Friendly Horse Farm Project's demonstration farm has poor electrical options, a solar-powered composter was developed for their site, taking eco-friendliness and cost efficiency one step further.
The bottom line for green horse keeping is that responsibly reducing runoff and mud, managing manure, taking care of pastures, and planting native plants makes good sense not only for your farm, but also for the environment. The bonus for horse owners is it also makes good sense for chore efficiency and horse health, and it can save money in the long run.
About the Author
Alayne Renée Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and reining competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, nationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approaches, Alayne is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise controls and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Alayne and her husband raise and train their reining horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho. She also authors the Smart Horse Keeping blog.