Green is in, and for good reason. The outlook for the planet is grim, scientists say, unless we all start taking better care of it. With environmental awareness on the rise, you've probably already taken steps to green up your lifestyle at home. Now, what about the barn?
Keeping horses, like everything else people do, affects the environment--and the impact can be good or bad, depending on the choices you make. Here, experts and horse owners share some earth-friendly advice. Even if you board your horse at a commercial stable, you can join the effort.
Why Do This?
Going green isn't just about helping the planet. It can help you provide a healthier lifestyle for your horses and be a better steward of your land. Those were important factors for Florida dressage trainer Ellie Scofield and her husband, Ken, who run a private training operation, Galloways Farm, in Parkland.
"Like most places in South Florida, ours is small. It's important to use all the space well," Ellie says. The property has their home, a barn for seven horses on training board, grass paddocks and a ring--all on fewer than three acres. It works partly because of the green features and procedures that the Scofields have incorporated since buying the place in 1998.
Some procedures are extensions of steps people everywhere are taking at home. For example, the old adage "reduce, reuse, recycle" applies at the barn--and not just to baling twine. At Galloways, the goal is to recycle 60 percent of nonorganic waste. There are recycling bins in the barn, and signs in the feed room and aisle list recyclable items--including feed bags. (Ellie gets shavings in bulk from a local mill; if you use bagged shavings, those bags are also recyclable.)
Other steps relate more specifically to horse care. And earth-friendly horsekeeping has extra benefits in these shaky economic times, Ellie notes. "Going green has sometimes added work for us, but it saves money," she says. A prime example is the way she deals with stall wastes.
A horse produces seven to nine tons of manure a year, so with seven horses the Scofields must deal with about 50 to 60 tons. "Most barns here have manure picked up and taken away. We didn't want that because the hauler just takes it to the landfill, so we looked into the best way to compost it," Ellie says. Composting breaks down manure and turns it into useful fertilizer, which horse manure straight from the stall is not.
The composting is done in a bin area that accommodates three separate piles. Waste from the stalls goes onto one pile. A second pile has older material that's breaking down into compost. And the material in the oldest pile, which is usually at least six months old, has decayed into seasoned compost. Ken turns the piles regularly and runs water through the center if they start to dry out.
"We use the compost as mulch for the landscaping, and we spread it on the fields to bolster the soil," says Ellie. "It's hard to grow grass here--we're ten miles from the beach, and the soil is very sandy. We turn compost into the soil when we seed the paddocks, and wherever soil is turned up we immediately add seasoned compost." In aerial photos, she says, the green grass makes their farm stand out from surrounding properties.
Besides turning waste into valuable fertilizer, the heat generated during composting kills parasites and weed seeds, says Jenifer Nadeau, PhD, an animal science professor and Extension specialist at the University of Connecticut. She offers these tips for success:
- Large farms can pile manure in windrows--long, freestanding piles, typically 10 feet wide and 5 feet high. A three-bin system works well on smaller farms. Piles need to be at least 4 feet square and 4 feet deep to reach good composting temperatures.
- Use a soil thermometer (from a garden store) to monitor the internal temperature of the pile. Good things are happening when it reads between 110 F and 140 F.
- Turning the piles (with a pitchfork or a tractor) speeds up the process by introducing air. Turn piles weekly or when the internal temperatures fall below 110 F or above 140 F.
- If you don't want to turn, lay perforated drainage pipes horizontally under the pile. This "passively aerated" composting will take a little longer--maybe six months, compared to four--but is still faster than the two years it takes manure to break down on its own.
- Covering the piles helps keep moisture levels consistent--they should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge.
The type of bedding you use can affect the outcome, Nadeau says. The ideal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio for compost is between 20:1 and 40:1. Horse manure with no bedding has a ratio of 25:1; oat straw, 48:1; and wood products, 500:1. If lots of wood shavings end up in your piles, you'll need to turn more frequently or add nitrogen (in the form of urea).
Because Ellie and Ken do everything on their farm, they control what goes into the compost. "We sift really well when we clean stalls, so there are not too many shavings mixed in," Ellie says. Composting adds work, she says, 'But it's worth it because we actually have grass, and we don't have to pay to have manure hauled away."
Can't allot land or labor for composting on your farm? There are other solutions. You can arrange for a local farmer or landscaper to take it, or give it to friends and neighbors for use in gardens or landscaping. Check with your regional resource council or Extension service for options where you live. You might find programs like these:
- In California, the Organic Materials Exchange is a project of the Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation District and Ecology Action. People can bring unwanted organic waste--livestock manure, compost, wood chips, coffee grounds and more--to this site, and people who want the materials can pick up what they need.
- In Michigan, horse owners in the Flint area can have used shavings and manure picked up by a wood waste recycling company, Mid-Michigan Recycling. The material goes to the company's Genesee Power Station, where it's used (along with other wood wastes) to produce electricity for about 28,000 homes in southeastern Michigan. The program was the brainstorm of Matt Shane, a county Extension director and educator.
However you plan to dispose of manure, pick a good spot for your piles. They should be far from wells or other water sources, so that runoff from the piles won't pollute the water. Ideally, the manure will be covered and contained (in bins or by concrete walls) to keep pollutants from leaching out.
Water and Land
Good manure management is one way to keep pollutants out of natural water sources. Nadeau suggests some others:
- Fence horses out. If you have a stream or pond, fence your pastures so that horses can't access it. It's convenient to let the horses use natural water sources, but they'll trample the banks; and runoff from the field will pollute the water. It's better to bring the water to the horses.
- Maintain a "vegetative buffer"--a strip of trees or shrubs--at least 35 feet wide between a stream or pond and horse pastures. The roots of trees and shrubs absorb runoff and keep it out of the water.
- Redirect runoff. In a rainstorm, does water course through your barnyard or other areas where it picks up and carries off pollution? Construct swales to direct water away from paddocks and rings. Install gutters on buildings, and direct the outflow from downspouts so that it won't cause erosion. And be sure your wash stall drains into a dry well or similar setup.
- Keep pastures green and growing. Grass absorbs some pollution and helps prevent erosion and runoff. Rotate grazing areas to keep grass healthy. Mow when you put a section into rest to cut down weeds and give the grass a chance to grow. Drag pastures to break up manure.
- Protect stream crossings. When horses trample stream banks, the banks erode; then sand and sediment are carried downstream. Construct a bridge or a culvert to prevent erosion.
- Go native when you choose landscaping plants, whether for buffer strips or other needs, Ellie suggests. Galloways had a lot of nonnative ficus trees--attractive, but with shallow roots that fly out of the ground in hurricanes. The Scofields are gradually replacing the ficus with live oaks, native trees that have stronger roots and hold the soil. "They're slow growers, but they'll eventually shade the paddocks," Ellie says.
Green Pest Control
Ellie and Ken also try to limit the use of chemicals on their farm. They don't dose their grass with chemical fertilizer, pesticides or weed killers--the compost takes care of fertilizer needs, and keeping the paddocks maintained and mowed helps keep the grass healthy.
"You can't go without fly spray in South Florida, but we don't have an automatic fly spray system in the barn,' Ellie says. She also tries to discourage boarders from using fly sprays on horses when they're inside. 'We clean the stalls twice a day, so flies aren't attracted into the barn and the horses are never that bothered in their stalls," she says.
Outdoors, it's a different situation: "We do have to use fly sprays here for turnout and riding, but we try to stick with natural repellants as much as possible." Still, there are times (after a heavy rain, for example) when flies and mosquitoes are so aggressive that chemical repellents are the only things that works.
This approach--using management and other tools, with chemicals only as necessary--is sometimes called integrated pest management. Biological controls can be part of the mix, too, Nadeau suggests:
- Add fly parasites, tiny parasitic wasps, to manure piles. Many fly species lay their eggs in manure; the fly larvae hatch out and pupate (develop into adults) in the pile. The predator wasps lay their eggs in the fly pupae, and the wasp larvae feed on the pupae and destroy them. Suppliers usually ship the predators several times a season.
- Many birds--barn swallows, flycatchers, purple martins--are voracious insect eaters. There are many ways to encourage them. For starters, don't remove the mud nests of swallows from your barn eaves. Use wire mesh to keep them from nesting in areas where you don't want them, but let them build nests in other areas.
- A colony of 150 brown bats can eat 33 million insects in a summer, according to the group Bat Conservation International. Bats are messy, and you probably don't want them in your barn, but you can set up a bat house where these little animals can roost. BCI has suggestions at www.batcon.org.
- Control mosquitoes by removing standing water where they breed. Don't let water collect in wheelbarrows, old tires, sagging tarps and the like. Fill in ruts and low places where water pools. Change water at least weekly in troughs. In permanent ponds, use mosquito "dunks"--briquettes of biological larvacide that affect mosquito larvae and nothing else--or fish such as gambusia, which eat the larvae.
- Use traps to control rodents. Keep grain in sealed containers in designated feed rooms, and clean up spilled grain immediately so it won't attract pests.
Energy: Less is More
The Galloways barn is designed with the climate in mind. It has an extra-wide center aisle, angled southeast to catch the prevailing breeze. Windows and doors are kept open on all sides for good air circulation. To keep the barn cooler, insulating plastic foam panels line the inside of the metal roof. Still, says Ellie, "Because it's so hot here, we need fans all year"--big, heavy-duty fans that suck up $22 worth of electricity per fan per month, if they run full-time.
To limit their energy use, Ken set up a system that controls not just the lights and fans in the barn but also the lights and appliances in their home. A computer in the house switches on the barn fans according to the temperature in summer; they're set to run at certain times of the day the rest of the year. Lights are controlled by time of day and by light levels--they come on when it's getting dark and switch off automatically by 9 p.m.
"We can override the settings from the house or the barn," says Ellie. "When I need to go out to the barn at night, I can turn on the lights from the house." The system has made a big difference in their electric bill, she adds, and the fans don't burn out so fast. While Ken is computer-savvy, Ellie says that setting up a system like this isn't difficult--you do it by adapting software that's available for home systems. (Smarthome, online at www.smarthome.com, is one source.) You can also set separate timers and motion or temperature sensors on lights and fans if you don't want to run them by computer.
Energy: Go Renewable
If you have electric fencing, you may already use a solar fence charger--a small photovoltaic panel that charges a battery to keep the fence operating. That's a good first step on the path to clean, renewable energy. But if you're committed to that path, you may want to do more.
"A horse farm is ideal for solar and wind energy," says Bob Loebelenz, who has installed both at his Lion Spring Farm in Dover, Massachusetts. "Most farms have plenty of places to position solar panels and orient them to the sun, and room for wind turbines."
Bob's wife, Lee, operates a breeding operation at their farm, standing the Thoroughbred stallion Take Arms. Lion Spring has photovoltaic solar panels on the barn roof and, as of this writing, more going up on poles on the land. A 73-foot-tall wind turbine stands next to the barn.
"We are hooked into the utility but rely mostly on solar and wind," Bob says. The solar panels and wind turbine feed into a battery bank and supply electricity for everything in the house and barn except the high-load items--the stove, dishwasher and clothes dryer. Those run off the utility. There are practical advantages, Lee says: "Without the off-grid system we'd have to hand-carry water to the horses when the power is out, which occurs frequently here. With 20 horses, that's a lot of water to tote."
Bob, who has studied solar and wind power extensively, designed and installed the system; but he says most people will need a professional to do this. If wind turbines and other components aren't well located and properly set up, he notes, they won't produce the power they should. Getting permits and approvals can be tricky, too. The farm's wind turbine was delayed two years by neighbors' objections.
These systems can be expensive. While many states offer tax credits or other incentives, cost can be a hurdle. "The question we're asked most is, what's the payback time?" Bob says. "If saving money is your motivation, forget it. The motivation should be the fact that we need to change our energy infrastructure, and you want to be part of that process of change." That said, he notes, most solar modules last 20 to 30 years. Over that time, with energy costs rising, an alternative system may start to look cheap.
If an off-grid system isn't in your budget, you may still be able to use energy from renewable sources. Find out if your utility offers a "clean energy" option that lets you choose to use power generated from sources like wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric.
Green for All
If you board your horse, you don't get to decide if his manure will be composted or if renewable energy will power his stall fan. But you can still make green choices in your horse life. Here are eight steps that any rider can take.
- Instead of buying bottled water to bring to the barn, fill a reusable water bottle with cold tap water. You can use a filter to purify the water, if that's necessary.
- Use earth-friendly grooming products when you can, like nonchemical fly sprays and shampoos with biodegradable surfactants. Look for detergents and other cleaning products with the Design for the Environment logo . (DfE, a US Environmental Protection Agency program, certifies that products contain only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class.)
- Recycle your supplement containers, shampoo and spray bottles, and other "empties" from the barn.
- Air-dry your horse laundry to use less electricity.
- Wash down your horse with a bucket and a sponge, instead of a hose, to use less water.
- Share, swap and buy secondhand equipment when you can. You'll save money and, by extending the life of an existing product, you'll save the natural resources and energy that would be used to make something new.
- Look for organic and recycled materials when you buy new gear. Fleece made from recycled soda bottles and fabrics using organic cotton, bamboo and other "green" fibers are beginning to show up in tack shops.
- Stay on horse trails when you ride out, and don't ride on muddy trails. Trailblazing or riding over soft ground tears up the land and leads to erosion, runoff and water pollution. If you ride out often, volunteer to help maintain the trails you use.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Practical Horseman.