Did you know that over a million seabirds and 100,000 sea mammals are killed by pollution every year? And that 46 percent of lakes in America are too polluted for aquatic life to survive? It’s not only fish and wildlife that suffer the ill effects of pollution; worldwide, over 5,000 people die every day due to dirty drinking water.
Agriculture, which includes horse-keeping, is one of the most significant contributors to both pollution and habitat destruction. That’s right: How you keep your horses can affect not only the wildlife around you but also can be a significant contributor to environmental hazards. And these hazards have wide-reaching effects.
Can you make a difference? Absolutely. In 2010, recycling and composting alone prevented 85 million tons of material from being disposed of in landfills or dumped into the ocean—an increase from 18 million tons in 1980. I’ll give you seven steps you can take to minimize the environmental impact of your barn, from manure composting to establishing a recycling program. You’ll soon discover that what’s good for the environment is good for you, and good for your horses as well.
What’s the Problem?
When you think of a horse farm, do you have visions of pristine pastures with perfect fence lines, where fat, sassy horses roam and graze to their hearts’ content? Yet what about the manure pile and muddy areas around the water troughs? Or trashcans filled with old feedbags and baling twine?
There’s no doubt about it, housing horses can be hard to the environment in a wide variety of ways, and even on the most beautiful farms around. Manure, insect sprays, and weed killers on the pasture all can play a role in contaminating local streams and waterways, while trash bins filled with plastics, empty containers, and other waste contribute to the landfills. Even turning on the lights, bedding your stalls, or repairing fences puts pressure on the environment by using up important resources. Here’s how you can help.
Step 1: Manage Pastures
One of the most important parts of green horse keeping is this: Keep pastures healthy and mud to a minimum. Less mud means less standing water and no more runoff that’s likely to contaminate nearby streams. If your pastures are healthy, they’re also more likely to be weed-free, with a reduced need for toxic herbicides.
To keep your pastures as healthy as possible, avoid overgrazing by rotating horses off the pasture when grass is grazed down to approximately three inches. A single horse generally requires between one and two acres if he’s going to be maintained on grass, so don’t overcrowd. Remove manure regularly from smaller pastures and paddocks to avoid build-up and minimize groundwater contamination. Submit soil samples for analysis annually, and add lime or fertilizer according to the results of this analysis. (Your local feed store should be able to provide this soil analysis, and advise you about lime and fertilizer.) Finally, you can over-seed as needed in the fall. Healthy grass will choke out weeds, minimizing the need to spray.
Step 2: Set Up a Recycling Center
Barns generate an enormous amount of trash, ranging from the pop cans and water bottles that accumulate on hot summer days to feedbags and plastics used to bale shavings. You might be amazed at how much of this trash can actually be recycled—depending on where you live. Start by checking out earth911.com to learn what can be recycled in your area, and where. Then designate one or several recycling collection centers on your facility to collect these items.
The list of products that can be recycled is practically endless and includes paper, wood, metal, and Styrofoam packaging. If you have curbside recycling in your state, many of these products simply can be collected in a bin that’s picked up with your regular garbage service. Other items may need to be transported to specialized facilities. If you set up an organized area with separate bins for collecting different items, it’s easy to make an occasional delivery. And if you have a large facility, setting up several different collection areas in convenient locations will encourage recycling rather than disposal. The key is convenience. If you have an office at your farm, even non-working electronics and print cartridges can be dropped off at your local Goodwill for recycling.
Step 3: Compost Manure
A single horse can produce as much as 50 pounds of manure per day. That’s nine tons a year. Obviously, what to do with the manure on your farm is an important question when it comes to protecting the environment. Composting is an ideal solution.
Composting your manure can be as simple or complicated as you’d like to make it, and has a wide variety of benefits. Heat generated during the composting process not only kills parasite eggs and fly larvae but also can help break down toxic chemicals. A well-composted manure pile will shrink in size to as little as half its initial volume, and produce an end product that can benefit gardens or pastures. Some farm managers can even sell their compost to generate a little extra cash.
Successful composting depends on controlling three factors: moisture, heat, and airflow. Simply covering your manure pile can help you control heat and moisture while turning it regularly either with a tractor or by hand provides airflow. You also can set up your pile with pipes designed to blow air through the center of the pile, thus avoiding the need for turning. A cover will keep the manure from getting too wet while watering it with a hose will keep it from being too dry. Ideally, your pile will be as moist as a wrung-out sponge, and internal temperatures of 135 to 150 degrees F are easy to achieve just by covering it with a tarp. If you set up three separate piles, you can rotate between your current dump pile, a “cooking” pile, and a finished product.
Concerned about a number of shavings in your stall waste? The ideal carbon (sawdust, straw, or shavings) to nitrogen (manure) ratio for composting is between 25:1 and 30:1. With careful stall cleaning, combined with manure picked from pastures and paddocks, this ratio shouldn’t be hard to achieve. Although more bedding than poop means it may take a little longer for the compost to break down, the end product will be perfect for the garden.
If you find that you have too much manure and too little time to make composting work for your farm, an alternative is to arrange with a local nursery or garden center to haul away your manure into their own composting facility.
Step 4: Plan Carefully
If you’re lucky enough to be building a new facility, plan your site layout carefully. Place buildings on high ground, with pastures or paddocks sloping away from buildings. A good excavator is a must and can help you plan drainage routes.
In a perfect world, you’ll build sacrifice areas associated with your pastures or paddocks. These closed-in, graveled areas will provide turnout for your horses, and prevent your pastures from turning into mud pits during wet months. This not only prevents runoff that can contaminate local water sources but also makes your property less attractive to flies and other insects, thus minimizing your need for pesticides.
If completely separated sacrifice areas simply aren’t an option and you have large enough pastures to support the number of horses that live there, you can do a lot to minimize mud by laying down gravel in places horses like to congregate, such as around gates, loafing sheds, and water troughs. A base layer of three-quarter minus rock that’s six to 12 inches deep and well compacted, with a four- to six-inch layer of one-quarter minus rock on top is a good combination for controlling mud, without causing bruising to your horse’s feet. Road fabric placed under your gravel areas also can help, but beware: It’s common for horses to dig or roll and cause the road fabric to be exposed. If you do decide to use it, make sure it’s completely buried, with no exposed edges.
Finally, when you develop your site plan, be sure to allow a buffer between your pastures and any streams or wetlands on your property, to further protect water quality. In some areas, this is required by legal statute.
Step 5: Build Responsibly
Whether you’re just building your barn, are making an addition, or are simply fixing fences, the type of construction you choose is an important environmental decision—beginning with your choice of wood.
If you really want to “go green” and can handle a little extra cost, you can consider bamboo as a wood option. Bamboo is one of the earth’s fastest growing plants and is typically grown without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. Not only that, but bamboo also is strong and tough, making it a good choice for fences and barns. Another option to consider is a wood composite. This manmade, wood-like product is made from as much as 65-percent recycled materials, including both recycled wood and plastic.
Conventional wood still can be an environmentally responsible option, but consider looking for a source that’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This non-profit organization certifies wood products that are grown and harvested from managed forests with an eye on sustainability. (For more information about the FSC, check out fsc.org.)
Make sure your building plan includes gutters that direct rainfall to appropriate drainage routes. Also, consider such finishing touches as rubber pavers made from recycled tire rubber for barn aisles and walkways. With a little bit of effort, you can find a wide variety of environmentally friendly options to include in your barn design.
Step 6: Let There Be Light!
If you’re in the design or remodeling stages, consider how you can maximize natural light in your barn construction. Stalls with windows to the outside world and roof cupolas not only give your barn a nicer look, they also let in the light. (As a side benefit, these construction options generally allow for better ventilation.)
For your artificial lighting, replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Fluorescents use one-quarter the amount of electricity of incandescents and last approximately nine times longer. An even more efficient lighting option to consider is LED lights; these use only 10 to 20 percent of the energy of incandescent bulbs, and last 20 times longer. (For more information about barn-friendly lighting options, visit equilumination.com.)
Finally, install outside lights on motion detectors so they’ll come on when you approach the barn, but won’t be left on all night long. And if you’re looking for other ways to conserve energy, consider solar power. Small solar panels may be all you need to generate enough power to open that electric gate or keep a water heater running.
Step 7: Pest Control
Where there are horses, there are flies. Where there’s grain, there are rodents. The United States applies 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually; that’s 20 percent of global pesticide use. Make the right choices when it comes to controlling pests, minimizing the need for toxic chemicals.
Careful construction, pasture management, and manure composting can go a long way toward minimizing flies on your farm. But no matter how hard you try, the flies still will show up. Consider using predator wasps on your manure pile as an environmentally friendly method to control remaining flies. Flysheets and natural sprays such as those containing citronella can give you a final layer of control. Finally, if barn swallows come to visit, think twice before chasing them away. Yes, you’ll have to clean up after them, but a family of swallows nesting in your rafters can virtually eliminate flies in your barn.
When it comes to rodents, proper grain storage is crucial for keeping rats and mice away. Metal storage containers will prevent rodents from getting into the grain bins. Old freezers often can do the trick, but take care to remove the locking mechanism to prevent curious kids or pets from being locked inside. Sweep barn aisles regularly, and keep feed rooms clean. Finally, consider adding a barn cat to your roster of employees. A good mouser can be worth his weight in gold!
If you care about the environment, don’t be overwhelmed by the idea of going green. Remember: Any little bit can help. Start by taking just one or two simple steps to make your barn more environmentally friendly. It’s not that hard to change some light bulbs or get a cat! Before you know it, you’ll be composting manure and have a pasture management plan in place. Your farm will be cleaner, your horses will be happier, and the world will thank you for it!