The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering staff members Stephanie Mehlhope, Sarah Wightman, and Steve Higgins, PhD, Director of Animal and Environmental Compliance for the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, provided the following information to help horse owners better manage their farms and properties.
Managing horses can be both rewarding and challenging. Horse owners often struggle to balance their horses’ needs with environmental concerns while remaining within their farm’s budget.
In the United States, farmers must comply with federal and state regulations concerning agricultural sediment, pathogens and nutrient pollution to the air and water. Fortunately, researchers have determined a set of best management practices (BMPs) that are the most effective, practical, and economical means of reducing and preventing pollution. In addition to BMPs’ cost savings, these practices typically increase animal welfare and facilitate proper farm management.
In this article we list a few best management practices beneficial to owners, horses and the environment. Usually BMPs are not needed for the entire operation, and owners can target application to areas with the highest potential for environmental pollution, especially those areas that could affect surface or groundwater.
Streams and Waterbodies
Stream Crossings Implementing a stream crossing with exclusion fencing will improve water quality as well as reduce nutrient, sediment, pathogen and organic matter loads in streams. Limiting foot and equipment traffic around these areas also helps reduce farm-wide erosion. Stream crossings can be designed for use with farm equipment and can provide horses with easy access to pastures, thereby improving grazing distribution while reducing the likelihood that horses will be injured while walking to difficult-to-reach pastures.
Riparian Buffer Zones A riparian buffer is the transitional zone between the aquatic ecosystem and upland areas bordering a stream or other body of water. Maintaining and enhancing vegetated riparian buffers provide landowners with reduced erosion and flood damage from the slowing of water, increased farm aesthetics from attractive vegetation and shade, water temperature regulation that stops algae growth and improves fish habitat, and natural filtration of contaminants from farm runoff. Wider buffers (greater than 160 feet) tend to removing nitrogen from water most efficiently, but a smaller buffer of 20 feet on each side of a stream bank at least provides stream-side protection and some contaminant filtering.
Paddocks and Pastures
Allowing horses to behave as they would naturally can lead to overgrazing, congregation in sensitive areas, mud buildup, vegetation loss, soil compaction and pasture erosion.
Grade Stabilization Structure If gully erosion is a problem on your farm, maintaining paddock vegetation is the best way to control further erosion. Owners sometimes place roll bales in gullies, hoping to keep soil in place and stop further erosion. However, this practice actually worsens erosion as horses are attracted to the gully to eat the hay. To free up this unusable land and to prevent injuries to horses, manage the gully by constructing a grade stabilization structure. These structures stabilize gullies by controlling water flow and absorbing stream energy, but gradually decrease the necessary elevation change between the channel (former gully) and the receiving surface water body to prevent erosion. A typical structure accomplishes this by using a series of closely placed posts and cattle panels to hold large rocks in place.
High Traffic Pads and Drylots Congregating horses around feeding and watering areas can create mud, increase soil compaction, eliminate desired vegetation and lead to increased weed infestation. To reduce these problems in high-traffic areas, horse owners should install hardened surfaces and use rotational feeding and watering practices to reduce damage to pastures and improve horse health. When walking in mud, horses require additional energy, which increses feed costs. Constructing drylots and hardened surfaces in high-traffic areas can help maintain forage, decrease mud and erosion, reduce the internal parasite pressure caused by larva hatching from feces and allow tractors and other farm equipment to enter feeding areas without causing rutting and soil damage.
Rotational Grazing Rotational grazing moves horses from one paddock to a fresh area to optimize horses’ foraging diet and to allow forage regrowth. Rotational grazing improves plant diversity and regrowth speed, prevents erosion, filters runoff due to the maintenance of adequate vegetative growth and can greatly improve herd health compared to continuously grazed systems. With improved forage quality and reduced mud created by constant foot traffic, owners might see reduced supplemental feed and medication costs. Move mineral supplements, feeders and shelters periodically to redistribute horses throughout a paddock, thus avoiding troublesome manure accumulation.
Shade Structures Providing your horses with adequate shade helps prevent sunlight- and heat-related illnesses. Horses generally prefer shade from trees rather than constructed structures. Trees help block incoming solar radiation, and moisture evaporating from their leaves helps cool surrounding air. If there are not enough trees for the number of horses, animals will congregate densely, eroding the soil and exposing tree roots, which can damage or kill the trees. Owners can build portable, low-cost shade structures with a 70% or greater occluded cloth that are moved easily within and between pastures as part of a rotational grazing system. The ability to move these structures facilitates manure cleanup and lessens soil compaction and/or mud creation underneath. Research indicates that a well-designed portable shade structure can reduce total heat load by 30-50% and should be placed in a north-south orientation to help the area remain dry.
Barn and Work Areas
Several facilities management practices can reduce the potential for off-site movement of pollutants.
Pervious concrete bathing and drainage areas Individuals who exercise, show or sell horses commonly bathe their animals. Bathing areas should consider the horse’s safety with sufficient traction for horse hooves, but also should avoid the pathogens, bacteria, detergents, pesticides, urine, manure and other suspended solids from the waste water runoff. These have the potential to pollute surface and ground waters. Pervious concrete might be the best alternative surface material for such horse facilities because it infiltrates wash water, reduces the splashing of ponded or puddled water, and it provides a habitat within the substrate matrix for beneficial bacteria to thrive. These bacteria are capable of destroying harmful pathogens found in animal waste. Wash water infiltrating the pad and substrate can be discharged through a vegetative filter strip or other treatment system to further slow and filter contaminants in the water.
Carcass composting We all dread the loss of a horse, but it is an unfortunate reality that must be dealt with. There are many options available for disposing of a beloved horse, but one of the best ways to make good of the situation is through composting. Composting does require time and space, and owners might need some specialized equipment. Composting can provide horse owners with a convenient method for disposing of animal mortalities, while providing a valuable soil amendment. Owners can also store and reuse the compost material to decompose other mortalities.
Barns and housing facilities drainage To keep farm runoff clean, implement diversion practices if water enters the facilities from upland sources. Levees, dikes, drainage swales and diversion ditches can be created cheaply to carry the water away to a vegetated filter strip or drainageway. Placing gutters on the sides of buildings diverts clean rainwater away from horse handling areas and prevents the pollution of this otherwise clean and usable water.
To avoid polluting the environment, horse owners need to identify the pollution sources on their farms and implement best management practices. More information about this and many other topics can be found within the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s publications at www.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs.asp.