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Environmentally Friendly Horse-Keeping

ENIVRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY HORSE-KEEPING HOW GREEN IS YOUR HORSE FARM? By Ann Swinker PhD., Penn State University, Extension Horse Specialist

This is the time of year when you start thinking about New Year’s resolutions, and you may want to think of ways to make your stable and farm more environmentally-friendly in 2011. Going green on your horse farm is not difficult or expensive. You may already be using environmentally-friendly methods of horse-keeping and just need to make some adjustments. In addition, there may be funding sources to help you cost-share these conservation improvements. Your farm may be eligible to be paid to incorporate environmentally-friendly conservation practices into your operation.

Horses in a pasture next to a river

The USDA-NRCS, DEP, EPA and State Conservation Districts are all concerned about point and non-point sources of pollution, and horse manure (nutrients) may be reaching waterways by way of runoff over land or through the soil. Depending on your state you may be regulated to do some of these conservation practices by law. Horse owners should be concerned about “doing the right thing” and some of the best management practices help the environment. For example, controlling water pollution improves the health of nearby streams and rivers, which in turn improves their suitability and improves wildlife habitat, which increases insect predators and reduces fly and mosquito habitats. Letting nature take its course is good for the environment and your wallet, and it saves you time.

Keep Clean Water Clean by Reducing Water Runoff Install gutters and downspouts on all buildings. This diverts clean rainwater away from high traffic areas, and it reduces the amount of sediment and manure that gets into the surface water, gullies and nearby streams. Frequently, the picked up manure travels in water runoff from high use turnout areas, paddocks and corrals and travels into a water supply. Sediment clouds the water and the nutrients (nitrogen and phosphors from your manure pile) causing bacteria and/or algae to grow. This unbalanced vegetative growth and contaminates can cause fish kills and disrupt aquatic life. Remember, even if your farm is not near a stream or pond the runoff can contaminate local waterways or groundwater.

If your pasture has a stream running through it, plan to install an alternate watering system away from the stream, or a stream crossing that can also provide access to water. First, stabilizing the stream bank enables protection of water quality. Then, fencing off the access to the stream concludes the protection. State funding (in most states) can help you with this conservation project. Barriers such as planted trees provide dust barriers and filter protection for the banks of streams and ponds. Stream bank stabilization improves fish habitat, and the vegetation provides habitat for birds and small animals. Fencing restricts livestock access to the bank or shore, with the exception of controlled areas for drinking and/or crossing.

Horses with heads over a gate while in a pasture

It is best to use automatic waterers to water livestock for they assist in limited use of water. Automatic waterers keep water cool during the summer and prevent freezing during the winter season. The circulating water is fresh and just requires occasional cleaning and surveillance.

There are many other ways in conserving water and reducing the amount of runoff from your barn. Do not overflow the water tanks; instead use shot-off floats and make sure hoses, faucets and sprayers do not leak. Wash rack areas can be built on permeable footing that lets water filter through, which helps prevent erosion. If the water from your wash stall area runs out onto the ground, then plant grass or other vegetation to absorb it, filter out contaminants and prevent erosion. Consider planting a “rain garden” in the location the wash stalls or down spouts drain toward. Your county extension office can help with the selecting of non-toxic plants that can help filter out the nutrients that are discharged in water runoff. Use biodegradable and nontoxic products around the barn (shampoos, cleansers, etc.). Always read and follow directions on the label when applying herbicides and pesticides and only use as much as is directed.

Never stack manure near your well head (200 feet away from the well head is recommended) or any waterway. It is a good idea to test your well water and/or public water systems to see what you and your horses are drinking.

Manure Management The backyard horse operation generates a lot of manure, and managed improperly can cause odors, flies and, most importantly, runoff. The average 1,000-pound horse produces 9 tons of manure a year (50 pounds per day) containing valuable fertilizer elements (14bp N/T, 4 lb P2O5/ton, 14 lb K2O/ton). Add to that an additional cubic foot of bedding material and you get 730 cubic feet per year from one horse. How the manure is stored and treated has a substantial impact on its value. Horse owners have a responsibility to manage the manure that is a byproduct of their industry. Develop a management plan for manure and soiled bedding. Use it on croplands, arena surfaces and when landscaping. If you don’t plan to use the manure yourself, develop a marketing plan so others can make use of it.

Manure is commonly stockpiled prior to use. Adequate storage area allows for greater flexibility in timing of manure use. Therefore, be sure you have a large enough storage area to accommodate the manure produced and needed to be stored. Over time the manure will shrink from decomposition and moisture loss.

Proper site selection for the storage area is important to safeguard against surface and groundwater contamination. Place stockpiles at least 200 feet away from surface water (creeks, ponds, etc.) and wells. Establish and maintain grass buffer strips between water bodies and manure piles. Construct a perimeter ditch or berm around the storage area, if needed, to prevent runoff onto or off of the area.

Composting produces a relatively dry end-product that is easily handled and reduces the volume of the manure (40 percent to 65 percent less volume and weight than the raw manure). Composting at proper temperature can kill fly eggs and larvae, parasites, pathogens and weed seeds. Compost has less of an odor compared to raw manure and is more easily marketable. Composted manure acts as a slow release fertilizer and is an excellent soil conditioner.

To be done right, composting requires an investment of time and money. Machinery required includes a tractor, a manure spreader and a front-end loader. Some ammonia-nitrogen is lost during the composting process and an ammonia odor may result for a short period of time.

Microbes that drive the composting process require optimum conditions of temperature, moisture, oxygen, and carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio. The C:N ratio should be between 25:1 and 30:1; horse manure has an estimate C:N ratio of 50:1. With the addition of bedding material (high carbon content), the C:N ratio will be even higher. Therefore, N has to be added to the manure for it to compost properly. The addition of grass clippings, hay or fertilizer 125 to 30 pounds N/ton of manure (75 to 90 pounds of ammonium nitrate or 50 to 65 pounds of urea) should bring the C:N ratio into the optimum range. When microbes work properly, the compost temperature will be between 120 and 160 F. Cooler temperatures result from a lack of N. When the composting process is complete, the temperature will cool naturally.

It is important to have the right balance of moisture and air for the microbes to process the manure. The compost should be moist but not soggy, and may need to be watered or covered with plastic to maintain moisture. Aerate the compost by turning it regularly. Composting does require effort, but the result is a more easily used and economically valuable fertilizer.

Consider exporting your manure if you cannot compost. Contract or donate compost to crop farmers and community landscapers or parks and neighborhood gardeners. Offer a discount to boarders if they assist in the disposal of manure.

Precision Feeding Over-feeding horses is expensive and it causes excessive nutrients in the manure, polluting soils and groundwater. The average 1000 lbs horse will consume approximately 1.5-2% of its body weight in feed each day. This is about 15 to 20 pounds of hay, pasture and grains a day (total ration). The majority of a horse’s diet consists of hay or pasture (forage). A mature horse that is not being ridden or worked can be fed a diet consisting of only forage (hay or pasture). Grain mix (generally oats and corn) should be added to the ration as the training, work and activity is increased. Now more than ever, horse owners should follow the NRC (2007) Nutrient Requirements for Horses in order to maintain balancing of rations.

A Penn State University study reported, on average, horses are fed ration with crude protein as high as 157% and phosphors 185% above the 2007 NRC requirement. This means that most of us are over-feeding our horses. Do not over-feed supplements by placing them in your horse’s ration.

Pastures Management Pasturing horses is the most economical and easiest way to feed horses. Owners have several options for grazing horses. One of the best systems is Rotational grazing. With this grazing strategy, horses are allowed to graze one pasture cell at a time. When forage has been grazed down, horses can be rotated into the next cell. The previously grazed cell is then allowed to recover and it generally takes about 20-30 days for sufficient re-growth of forage of 6 – 8 inches, and then horses can be returned to that (first) pasture to graze.

The size and number of small pasture cells can vary based on available acreage, the number of horses, the productivity of the pasture, and how long the horses graze each cell over a period of time. Ideally, each pasture cell should contain enough grass to sustain the horses for 3 to 7 days. Grazing for longer than 7 days may increase damage due to hoof impaction, mainly near high traffic areas. Horse owners using rotational grazing need to make sure enough land to lay out the grazing cells is available. Electric fence can be utilized to divide the pasture land into cells. After the horses are placed in this system, remember to check the grass daily and if needed, move the horses to the next pasture before overgrazing and trampling of the grass occur. You have to monitor the grazing progress and remove horses to another cell or take them off the pasture and into a holding lot or paddock if you run out of grass and need to supplement with other forage. (feed hay)

No matter what the grazing system, proper management of the pasture is important. Proper fertilization is a critical step in maintaining high quality forage in pastures and applying fertilizer and lime should be based on soil tests results. Consult your local Extension office or analytical laboratory for soil test kits and directions on how to collect and evaluate soil samples.

Mow pastures for weed control and uniformity. Most weeds cannot withstand mowing, and mowing will assist in the weed curtailing the weed life span. After mowing, grasses tend to spread out which will shade out the weeds. A healthy grass stand also prevents erosion. Pick up manure in paddocks, arenas and other high use areas daily or as often as possible. Harrowing pastures will break up manure so that the pasture plants can utilize the nutrients contained within the droppings. Harrowing also helps destroy fly habitats, breaks up manure piles and exposes manure to sunlight, reducing parasites and assisting the regular de-worming program.

Sacrifice, Heavy Use Areas Mud is unhealthy for horses because it harbors parasites, bacterial and fungal pathogens. Horse owners need to develop exercise and heavy use sacrifice areas. The sacrifice areas are designated locations utilized for feeding of horses, watering, exercise and relaxation times when the pastures are not accessible due to lack of growth (winter or drought), flooding, etc. Generally, sacrifice areas have little or no vegetation growth. They are meant to be sacrificed for normal animal activities in order to protect and conserve the remaining pastures. Runoff from sacrifice areas should also be managed to reduce the risk of water pollution caused by sediment and nutrients leaching from these areas.

Erosion Control On most horse farms, erosion may more often be a gully where horses walk the fence or near a gate. It could be poorly vegetated pastures that provide poor ground cover during precipitation downfall. Riding arena surfaces become another source of possible erosion, especially after a heavy rainfall. Fencing, watering and feeding sites, the presence or absence of field buffers, and stream crossings all can influence erosion on farms.

Pest Control Keep your property cleaned up by regularly cleaning out the barn and tack room. Properly remove trash and old tires from the farm, for those items can provide an environment for insects to thrive. Store all feeds in securely sealed containers and clean up any spilled feeds. Block off mice and pest’s entry points into your barns walls. Barn cats are effective predators of the small rodents and can be a welcomed assistance in managing rodent populations.

Fly predators--nematodes and parasitic wasps can be released in manure piles and other insect breeding areas where they will feed on fly larvae (they require time to establish). These predators can be purchased on-line or through distributors. If you use insecticides near the area that you release predators, remember the insecticide can also eliminate the predator that you want to establish. Mowing tall grass and managing weeds around the barn will keep mosquitoes, ticks and other insect populations down. Plant bushes, flowers and ornamental plants (make sure they are all non-toxic to horses) that attract insect-eating birds to your property. However, do not encourage birds to nest in your barns, for bird droppings carry diseases. Encourage the habitat for bats, for the bats can eat their weight in bugs and insects.

For More Help

State Conservation districts are non-regulatory agencies that provide landowners with free education and technical assistance. To find your local conservation district, go to the website of the National Association of Conservation Districts ( and click on “State Directories.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service NRCS may have available to livestock and horse owners (some restrictions by state) the following programs: Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) program resources are available to owners and operators of agricultural and nonindustrial private forest lands, who are located in an approved CCPI project areas For more details contact your local office.

The NRCS Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) is a voluntary conservation initiative that enables the use of certain conservation programs along with a resource of eligible partners to provide financial and technical assistance to owners and operators of agricultural and non-industrial private forest lands.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers fact sheets, management tips and other information on non-point source pollution at Suggestions for reducing storm-water runoff and permeable pavements are described at

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