The health of the planet is a big concern these days, and while it’s easy to point the finger of blame toward big polluters such as factories, refineries and concentrated animal feeding operations, individuals need to own up to their part of the problem, too. Horse people in particular have responsibilities we can’t shirk. Conserving our slice of nature, however small or large, is important for our horses. There are several inexpensive ways to make your existing stable and pasture more eco-friendly without rebuilding your entire operation from scratch.
1. Manage Manure
“Ideally, manure should be kept in a storage structure with an impermeable floor and a roof,” she says. “Protecting the pile from rainwater and runoff water will decrease the amount of nutrients that leach through the pile into ground water or are carried away by runoff. Storing manure on a concrete pad with a tarp over the pile is a good, economical option. If you plan to actively compost your manure, a three-sided storage structure will be helpful.”
You should also develop a plan for how you’re going to use the manure. Landscape firms and nurseries will often haul it away for free, or you can spread it on your fields. Norris says that manure is fairly low in nutrients, but it can supply important organic matter to your fields, making them more productive. “Increasing the organic matter in your soil can help it retain moisture in times of drought and also facilitate proper infiltration by increasing porosity of the soil.”
To compost manure, stack it for six months to kill parasite eggs and weed seeds. Keep your pile damp, and turn those that are more than 2 feet deep often to allow oxygen in to help beneficial bacteria work.
If you plan to spread manure on your fields, your compost facility should be large enough to hold a minimum of 120 days of waste. “Manure should only be spread when plants are actively growing,” says Norris. “Manure spread when plants are dormant, or when soils are frozen or saturated with water, will run off.”
To determine the size your compost facility should be, check your wheelbarrow to see how many cubic feet of waste it holds and note the average number of loads you fill per horse. Norris’ formula is: the amount of waste per horse per day multiplied by the number of horses times 120 days.
For more advice on manure management contact your local conservation district.
2. Use Beneficial, Biological Measures
Flies and mosquitoes are not only irritating to animals and humans—they can carry deadly diseases, too. However, green-minded stable managers can find respite for their horses using natural measures.
More people are turning to biological control to help disrupt the lifecycle of insects. One solution is to use beneficial insects called fly parasites. These are tiny parasitic wasps that are harmless to humans and animals, but not to flies. Released on manure piles and in barns, these insects will travel up to 200 feet to seek and destroy flies that are in the pupal stage, before they become adults. Available through mail order, fly parasites are inexpensive, safe and easy to use.
“I really recommend fly parasites; people have good success with these,” says Jenifer Nadeau, assistant professor and equine extension specialist at the University of Connecticut. “Read the information on the proper way to release them, and get the right number of parasites for the amount of horses that you have,” Nadeau advises.
For best results, release the parasitic wasps before fly season begins. Arbico Organics, which sells natural pest control, says this is usually when you have three consecutive days of 40-degree temperatures. Otherwise, it will take up to 30 days for existing adult flies to die naturally. If you use fly parasites, you will have to forgo any overhead sprays or direct spraying of your manure pile. Traps, zappers and horse sprays are fine, however. Parasites are usually shipped as fly pupae in sawdust. Spread small amounts every three to four weeks around problem areas, such as manure piles, under water troughs, and in pens and paddocks.
Adding feed-through products to your horse’s diet also help disrupt the breeding cycle of flies. Feed-through fly control has an insect growth regulator as its active ingredient that travels within the intestinal tract and is passed in the manure without being absorbed by the horse. The active ingredient in the manure prevents house and stable fly larvae from developing an exoskeleton, so they can’t become flying adults. Since the product kills the larvae and not the adults, feed-through products need to be fed for four to six weeks before the full benefit is seen.
According to the University of California at Davis’ Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, there is also a bacterium that wreaks havoc with mosquito larvae. Bacillus thuringiensis var. israelensis, also known as Bti, turns toxic in the mosquito gut. It also affects black flies and some midges. Bti comes in a non-infectious concentrate (liquid spray, granules and floating briquettes) that can be dunked or scattered in standing water, such as water troughs, ponds, compost heaps, old tires, tree holes and bird baths. Bti can kill within 24 hours and lasts up to three weeks, depending upon the product.
Mosquitoes are hard to kill without chemicals once they’ve developed into flying adults, but carbon dioxide mosquito traps and biting insect traps can help bring the population down. Both of these traps work on the principle that mosquitoes locate humans and animals by the carbon dioxide in their breath. The machine lures the bugs with carbon dioxide created by a tank, trapping and killing them once they’re inside.
Control the breeding of the pests by mowing grass frequently and removing all unnecessary standing water. Insectivorous birds and bats consume thousands of flying pests every day and night, so encourage them to stay by setting up bat houses and bird houses near your barn.
3. Grow Healthy Pastures
A weedy, overgrazed pasture is more than just an eyesore. “Overused pastures have a big environmental impact,” says Norris. “During a rain storm, water droplets hit the ground and begin to move downhill. If you have a thick pasture, the rain will slow down and the grass will allow it to soak in. Overgrazed pastures with bare spots provide a smoother surface, so water runoff will pick up speed and will not have time to soak in. As it moves, the water picks up loose soil, manure and fertilizer. If rain water is allowed to rush through the manure pile, it can contaminate your ground water and well water. If the water off your land hits a stream at a high velocity, it will erode the stream bank.”
Christine Livingston, watershed coordinator for the Save the Dunes Conservation Fund in Northwest Indiana, says that silt and pollution are deadly to a stream. “When manure, silt and nutrients run off the land, it’s impossible for the ecosystem in the water to exist and everything starts to crash,” she says. “Invertebrates die and fish can’t feed. Fish eggs get buried and imbedded in the silt.”
Prevention and maintenance are the keys to healthy pastures. Norris says that it’s challenging to manage pastures because horses are spot grazers. They graze in their preferred “lawn” area and use the “rough” for elimination. “Don’t let these lawns get below the length that is right for your area, about 4 inches or so [see your extension specialist for guidance]. When lawns are down, rotate horses to a sacrifice area, such as a paddock or another area of the pasture.”
Not only do bare spots cause erosion, but they also allow weeds to get a toehold. In spring and fall, walk through your pasture and look for bare spots, throwing down grass seed as you go. And don’t be afraid to mow: “Allow the horses to graze the field down, then remove them and come right along with the mower,” says Norris. “Topping the grass off will make the areas of rough more palatable to horses and cut the weeds back before they go to seed.”
4. Prevent Water Runoff
It’s hard to keep horses out of high-traffic areas, such as around troughs and entrances to the pasture and run-in sheds. In spring and fall these areas tend to become mud holes, and as mentioned earlier, water rushing across bare patches can cause environmental problems. Take a look during a storm, and you’ll see water streaming off the roofs of your house and barn. That water has to go somewhere, so instead of letting it create mud or run off the land, turn it into a resource.
“A cistern will capture the roof’s runoff, which then provides an alternative watering system for the horses,” says Livingston. “Of course, this depends upon what your roof’s material is. A metal roof would be OK; shingles wouldn’t.”
A rain garden is a beautiful way to manage the runoff from your land. Rain gardens are shallow areas with deep-rooted plants that work to slow water down and encourage water infiltration. You can link the downspout of your gutter straight into the garden. “The water garden also provides treatment, because the plants absorb pollutants and nutrients that are harmful to streams,” says Livingston.
A rain garden is generally designed to hold water for a day or two, so mosquitoes won’t have a chance to breed. “If you have a rain garden that holds water permanently, the native plants will create a habitat for the predators of mosquitoes, so you’re creating a balance,” says Livingston. A vegetative buffer works similar to a rain garden, but it’s an area of grasses, trees or other permanent vegetation that remains between your horses and water sources. “The buffer is protected from horses by a fence,” says Norris. “This vegetation acts as a natural filter, catching and utilizing manure and fertilizers and trapping soil, sediment and pesticides that naturally move downhill in a rain storm.”
Norris says another option is to route the water runoff away from your barn using underground PVC pipes that lead to a grassy area in your pasture. The grass will slow the water and allow infiltration.
With a little management and know-how you can make your facility greener, but you’ll also create a healthier, more beautiful environment for you and your horses to enjoy.
Sharon Biggs is a frequent contributor to Horse Illustrated and a dressage instructor. She is the author of Advanced English Horsemanship and In One Arena (Half Halt Press).
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.