As a horse owner, you know what green broke means. Plus, green grass and greenhorn. And, if you pay the bills, you’re definitely familiar with greenbacks. But, do you know about green horsekeeping? In general, “green living” means making sound, sustainable and environmentally-focused decisions about how we live our lives and use resources. How does that apply to horse management?
At first thought, you might assume that green horsemanship means dumping dollars into your facility with little payback, other than the good feeling of taking earth-friendly and socially responsible strides. In reality, that is far from the only benefit. It can also improve the quality of life and health of your animals, employees and clients. You can solve some common problems in the barn with simple steps that create a healthier environment for horses and humans. In time, these simple solutions will make life greener on all sides of the fence.
1) Problem—Manure, in a word. Lots and lots of manure. It’s in smelly, steaming piles behind the barn, and you’re not quite sure where to put the next muck load. Your new neighbors complain constantly about the odor. Plus, water rains down on the pile, which leaches contaminants into the groundwater.
Solution—“The number one thing you can do as a horse owner to be easier on the Earth is proper manure management,” says Carey Williams, Ph.D., equine extension specialist for Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
You have several options for dealing with manure, says Mark Cummings of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Cummings, who oversees the Horse Environmental Awareness Program (HEAP) in Connecticut, says that a good first step is to store manure in a covered area—a concrete-lined manure storage area or a commercial dumpster—and have it hauled away by a local landscaping company, which will then compost the manure into usable soil.
A second option is to compost the manure yourself. “You can actually turn the manure into black dirt, which is actually a salable product,” Williams says. “Gardeners love it.” (Editor’s note: For more details about manure management, see the upcoming article about composting in the April issue of Stable Management.)
A third option is to spread the manure on your pastures to fertilize your horses’ grazing area. “Just make sure you’re spreading manure in the right amounts, during the right time of the year, under proper conditions and in the right places,” Williams says. “Not during flood season, on frozen ground, or in the pasture next to your neighbor’s swimming pool.” Spreading manure on pastures can also spread parasites as well as nutrients, Williams points out. “So, it’s really important for horse owners spreading manure to follow a strict parasite-control protocol and deworming program,” she adds.
2) Problem—You used pesticides and traditional insect-repellent sprays to keep flies out of your horse’s eyes and to control the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. The chemicals worked, but you can’t remember the last time you saw a butterfly or honey bee anywhere near your barn. In addition, you have a chemically-sensitive client who feels a little woozy every time she comes to ride, and you’ve noticed the horses’ respiratory endurance suffers during fly season.
Solution—Reduce pesticide use. First of all, move manure outside. “That’s the best thing barn owners can do to reduce the fly population inside the barn,” Williams says. “Get it out immediately; don’t let the manure bin sit.” Also, consider switching to the expanding array of fly control products containing natural repellents, including marigold, tomato or citronella extracts. Or, use predators that naturally feed on flies and fly larva.
3) Problem—Garbage and waste in your barn all end up in the same bin. Typically, the grooming area trash can holds soda cans, horse hair, bailing twine, mane bands, manure and candy wrappers. It all gets pitched into the dumpster or taken to the landfill, and you pay out of your pocket to dispose of all that waste.
Solution—Offer multiple bins for waste: one for manure and hair, one for trash and one for recyclables. The manure bin can be dumped in the composting or manure-storage area, ideally several times a day, says Williams. The trash can go to the dump, and the recyclables to the recycling station. If you make it easy, your clients will fall in line, and you won’t find bailing twine or soda cans in your composting bin.
4) Problem—The weeds in your pasture are so thick they hit your horses’ bellies, so you apply an herbicide to the grazing area. Your animals are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals, which also kill beneficial plant life and leach into the water supply. Then the weeds grow back and you start the cycle over again. The entire time, your horses are deprived of beneficial nutrients supplied by thriving pasture grass.
Solution—“Healthy stands of grasses choke out weeds,” Williams points out. If weeds are a problem in your pasture, the horses are probably overgrazing the pasture, she says, so create a sacrifice area and follow a rotational grazing program. Mowing also suppresses weeds. “Keeping pastures mowed to about five or six inches high prevents weeds from going to seed and spreading,” Williams says.
5)?Problem—The feed room is piled high with discarded grain sacks, plastic baggies and supplement buckets. Those plastic baggies are so convenient for pre-measuring grain and supplements, especially for boarding facilities, but plastic bags take 20 to 1,000 years to biodegrade. If you board 10 horses and each horse gets one meal of supplements a day, that’s 3,650 baggies a year used in your barn.
Solution—Reuse and recycle. Have horse owners write their horses’ names on seven bags, and reuse the same set every week. That means less garbage in your feed room and fewer plastic bags in the landfills. As for grain bags themselves, purchase grain in paper bags and recycle them if possible. Or, if your operation is large enough, consider buying grain in bulk. Regarding supplements, again, buy in bulk if possible. If nothing else, you’ll have enough buckets for every grooming, cleaning and painting project around the property. Or, use companies like SmartPak that supply pre-measured supplements in containers that are made out of recycled materials. As for bailing twine, the orange rope will biodegrade over time, says Williams, “but keep it out of your compost bins.”
6) Problem—The horses constantly walk through the stream and boggy area that crosses your pasture. Not only are they disturbing the quality of the water and the organisms that live there, the horses have also contracted thrush and white-line disease from wading in the wet conditions.
Solution—Keep livestock off of wetlands with fencing or bridges, Cummings says. He recommends contacting your local water conservation district for specific guidelines in your area.
7) Problem—When it rains, it pours, specifically into your paddocks. The rainwater drains off your barn roof and into you horses’ runs, creating a sloppy mess that’s hard on your horses and hard to clean. The contaminated water, full of ammonia from urine and bacteria and nitrogen from manure, drains into your ponds, streams, well and water table.
Solution—“Make moving water away from pastures, or into a dry well, a priority,” says Williams. If you don’t have gutters, install them. Make gutter cleaning a priority in the fall after leaves and tree needles clog them.“The dry wells will actually filter sediment out of the water as it works its way back into the ground,” she adds.
8) Problem—Over time, the fuel economy on all of your machinery has dipped. Your horse gets new shoes every eight weeks and has regularly scheduled appointments with your veterinarian, but your tractor hasn’t seen a mechanic since it left the showroom floor, leaving the machine less green and coughing oily smoke. In the same vein, your horse trailer could use new tires, and the pickup is overdue for a tuneup.
Solution—Schedule regular maintenance on all of your equipment and vehicles. Check your owner’s manuals and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for oil changes and tuneups. Regularly check the air pressure in the tires of your pickup, trailer, tractor and utility vehicle. Not only will you increase fuel economy and help conserve resources, but you’ll also increase the lifespan of the equipment that keeps your stable running.
9) Problem—You run a barn full of show horses, so you need to keep coats short and shiny, even in the winter months. Or, your barn houses broodmares that have to be ready for insemination by February. Either way, you’re flooding the barn with artificial light to trick the horses into maintaining show coats and reproductive estrus. Heat lamps seem to make sense for simulating summer, along with bright light for a long period, so that’s what you provide.
Solution—Light, not heat, dictates shedding and estrus. And it doesn’t take much to do the trick. According to information published by the Texas A & M Equine Science program, horses only need 16 hours of exposure to a minimum of 3 foot candles of light to shed a winter coat and move out of anestrus. However, 10 foot candles (which is equal to most emergency lighting) is the general recommendation. Rent an electrician’s light meter to test the light in your barn, and adjust lighting to the appropriate level. Then put the lights on a timer, and bundle the horses up so they don’t get chilled.
By paying attention to our environment and how we operate within it, we can help prolong the very thing we as equine professionals rely on—the land and the creatures on it.