The image of the ideal horse farm may be a sprawling ranch, with pastures as far as the eye can see, with the most pressing horsekeeping problem being how to check all those miles of fences before nightfall. But the reality is often quite different. Those of us who keep horses on small acreage know how tough it can be. Boot-sucking mud, overgrazed pastures, too-small turnouts—those are just a few of the challenges you may face if your land is limited.
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And unless you win the lottery, you probably aren’t going to buy a big spread anytime soon. Don’t worry—you’re in good company. In fact, around the country, the small horse farm—10 acres or less—is becoming the new standard. It makes sense; the denser the human population, the less space there is for large animals like horses.
But even in states that are mostly suburban, like New Jersey and my home state of Connecticut, horsekeeping isn’t just hanging on. It’s thriving. You probably see similar situations in your neck of the woods. It seems that nothing, not even a lack of open space, will deter us from keeping horses. Nor should it. Fortunately, horses are adaptable and fare well on small acreages, despite the challenges.
“When space is limited, we need to be even better stewards to prevent damage to the land,” says Bob Coleman, PhD, equine extension specialist with the University of Kentucky. “Overgrazing is a big issue, as are manure management and water runoff. Overgrazing results in bare soil, and weeds can take over.” A well-managed farm will boast healthy green pastures at least for the warm weather months.
[For your bookshelf: Horsekeeping on a Small Acreage: Designing and Managing Your Equine Facilities]
But good stewardship isn’t just about looking good.
If you think of your small farm as a living entity, you’ll appreciate how all its parts relate to one another. It’s a lot like taking care of your horse—you groom him, offer him nutritious feed, keep his feet trimmed and keep him up to date on his vaccinations. Neglect one of these and you could have problems that will affect his entire well-being.
Overgrazed and weedy fields, for instance, don’t hold water very well and that can mean runoff that will contaminate surface and ground waters. This type of nonpoint source pollution can include fertilizer, pesticides, sediment as well as fecal waste. And small farms are usually hemmed in by neighbors who might voice legitimate complaints.
To help horse owners, many states have instituted guidelines for small farm management. “Most states have specific regulations regarding how far a manure pile must be placed from wells, the neighbor’s land or waterways,” says Betsy Greene, PhD, former University of Vermont equine extension specialist who is now at the University of Arizona. “Back in Vermont, they have statewide restrictions known as accepted agricultural practices (AAPs), which lay out these rules and regulations. And because of a recently passed state Water Quality bill, the AAPs are becoming required agricultural practices.”
Some states offer financial assistance or tax credits to farm owners who practice good management. Think of it as free mentoring—after all, what’s good for the environment is good for our horses as well.
As you look around your small farm, you might see at least one or two things that need some fine-tuning. Here are a few strategies to help you meet the challenges of keeping horses on small acreages.
CHALLENGE 1: MAJOR MANURE PILES
If asked to name our biggest challenge in horsekeeping, most of us would probably have the same answer: that ever-expanding manure pile. “The typical 1,000-pound horse produces almost 40 pounds of manure per day,” says Greene. “If your horse spends any time in a stall, you probably add bedding, which can add an additional 15 to 20 pounds of material to the equation.” It’s easy to see why the manure pile looms so large.
And that manure pile is more than just an eyesore. If you don’t compost, manure can harbor parasites like strongyles and roundworms. In the warm weather months, it will attract flies and other pests. When it rains, contaminants from your manure pile will leach into ground and surface waters.
What you can do: Compost it. If you’ve ever dug into the middle of the manure pile either with your tractor or a shovel, you’ll notice the interior is a lot like moist dirt. That’s compost, which can be used as fertilizer or to amend soil in general. But if you’ve avoided composting because it seems like a lot of trouble, take another look at the basics. It’s easier than you think.
“Certain things must happen for manure and stall waste to go through the active composting process,” says Greene. “In the most basic sense, there must be adequate aeration, moisture and the right temperatures to allow microbes to convert static piles into finished compost.” For composting, make your manure pile about twice as long at its base as it is high. That helps to keep the pile at the right temperature—between 110 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. You can buy a compost thermometer at most garden stores or nurseries. The high temperatures kill off bad bacteria and pathogens as well as break down the material into a useful fertilizer.
A successful compost pile needs the following three elements:
- Air. Insects, earthworms and hard-working microbes turn manure into fertilizer. Aerobic organisms need air to thrive. They’re the good guys that will break down your pile in a matter of weeks. Getting air into the manure pile doesn’t have to be labor intensive even if you don’t have a tractor. If the pile is manageable, use a pitchfork to toss it once a week. Of course, if you have a tractor, turning it is even better. If neither of those is an option, install two or three perforated PVC pipes (about five feet long) into the compost. They’ll work as chimneys to circulate air throughout the pile. You’ll know if your compost pile isn’t sufficiently aerated because it will emit a foul odor, something like rotten eggs. That’s a sign you have anaerobic decomposition—decomposition by organisms that thrive on a lack of air. The anaerobic state emits methane gas, which is a potent contributor to global warming, and the material created by the anaerobic state isn’t fit for fertilizer. Anaerobic organisms don’t work as hard. The manure is still breaking down, but it could take years, and in the meantime, it’s a source of pollution.
- Moisture. Your compost pile needs moisture for efficient microbial activity. Aim for a moisture content of 40 to 60 percent. But, if the pile is too wet, the excess moisture will compress the pile and stop a beneficial aerobic decomposition. To test for moisture, grab a handful of material and squeeze; it should feel like a sponge—damp, but not dripping. If it’s too wet, consider covering the pile with a tarp during the rainy season. If it’s too dry, you might have to add water. In that case, just moisten with a garden hose as you turn it.
- The right carbon to nitrogen ratio. The ideal ratio is between 25:1 and 30:1, with carbon being the higher number. Keep in mind that wood shavings can have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 500:1, which is why excess shavings in the compost will really slow things down. Try your best to keep wood shavings out of the pile, but even if shavings sneak in, you can re-balance the ratio by adding materials that are high in nitrogen, like more horse manure, blood meal, grass clippings or chicken manure.
Coleman encourages farm owners to get to know their local extension agent, who can provide easy-to-follow instructions on how to prepare an area for compost, stoke the pile and maintain it.
“The average horse owner can compost their horses’ manure without much trouble,” says Coleman. The end result is a useful and valuable resource you can use to feed your farm’s plants and grasses.
If composting is just not an option on your property, consider hiring a private hauler to take it away weekly or monthly. “Some of the Vermont stables contract with companies to have an onsite roll-off dumpster that is hauled off weekly or as needed,” says Greene.
CHALLENGE 2: MUD, MUD, AND MORE MUD
We can’t ignore mud on the small farm. Parasites and bacteria thrive in mud, flies find it irresistible and, yes, it’s messy and unsightly. Of course, we blame the mud on the weather, but the problem is not so much how much rain falls, but where it goes after it hits the ground. Water that pools around high traffic areas like gates, feeders and watering troughs will quickly produce a muddy mire.
What you can do: You can’t stop the rain from falling, but you can redirect it.
- Install gutters and downspouts on every structure with a roof. Even a small four- to six-stall barn sheds up to 600 gallons of water for every inch of rain that falls. That’s a good reason to give that water direction.
- Install swales, berms or a French drain. These work in the same way gutters do on roofed structures, carrying the water safely away from paddocks, fields arenas, and along driveways.
- Construct a catch basin or culvert for low spots. If you have an area where rainwater pools or ponds, consider having a contractor install a catch basin to catch water and drain it away through underground pipes. A two- by two- or three- by three-foot basin is usually sufficient for farm use, and while it might seem like an expensive fix, the benefits of a dry property far outweigh the cost.
- Renovate high traffic or heavily compacted areas. Greene shares a story of success at the University of Vermont equine facility. High traffic areas in paddocks where horses tended to congregate were mired in mud, especially in the spring. “We replaced eight inches of compacted topsoil with a layer of geotextile filter fabric, four inches of large stone (1 1/2 inch to 1 3/4 inch), covered by another layer of fabric, and then four inches of dirty pea stone on the topmost layer,” Greene says. “It created a stone sandwich that allowed water to flow underneath the compacted top surface to a slightly angled PVC pipe buried under the travel lane to the grass buffer and an existing French drain.” The experiment was a huge success.
CHALLENGE 3: OVERGRAZED PASTURES
It is the rare small acreage that can provide 100 percent of the nutritional needs of all its horses—most likely they’ll need supplemental high quality hay. But even small pastures can provide vital grazing time for at least part of the year.
“The most common problem on small acreages,” says Dan Undersander, forage agronomist with the University of Wisconsin, “is overgrazing and under-fertilizing.”
Overgrazing results in more than unsightly pastures. Hard, compacted soils allow rainwater to run along the surface, carrying sediments and manure to ground and surface waters. Weeds thrive in tough conditions and crowd out nutritious grasses. But it is possible to grow a healthy and nutritious pasture even on a small acreage, providing you follow a few simple rules.
“The recommended stocking rate to keep pasture is 1,000 pounds of horse per two to three acres,” says Dan Undersander. “Overstocking is one of the biggest mistakes on the small acreage horse farm. When you put eight to 10 horses on two or three acres, the horses will graze the grass too short and it dies out. The other side of the equation is having too few horses to keep up with the pasture—one horse on 10 acres can’t possibly keep up with the grazing requirements. And that’s when the weeds take over.”
What you can do: Restore your overgrazed pasture with the following steps:
- Take a soil sample every three to five years. “Take samples from a few different sites,” says Undersander, “but stay away from areas that are exceptions, like near the road, sandy areas or heavily eroded spots. You’re looking for an average of soil fertility throughout the field.” The soil sample will tell you what minerals your pasture needs. Many old, overgrazed horse pastures are deficient in phosphorus.
- Eliminate significant weed problems. Perennial broadleaf weeds are the most common culprit in established horse pastures, but identifying the weeds on your property will help you get them under control. You can’t rid your pasture of all weeds, but Undersander recommends tackling any patch of thistle or weeds that measures two by three feet or more either through frequent mowing or by using an herbicide. “If you decide to go the latter route, be sure to use the product as directed for the sake of the environment and your horses’ health,” says Undersander. “One to two applications of herbicide should control the problem.”
- Fertilize based on your soil sample. Just like your horse, grass needs special care and nutrients. “Soil fertility is so important,” says Undersander. “Once you know what your soil is lacking, you can feed it what it needs. If you change the number of horses on the acreage, if you change your feed or supplement program, or even simply start feeding more grain, this can change the minerals excreted in your horse’s manure. You might have to re-fertilize based on the results of another soil test.”
- Choose the right seed for your climate and soil conditions. This varies depending on where you live and your soil conditions. Choose seed based on soil fertility, drainage issues, acidity, climate hardiness and suitability for horses. Your county extension office can help you choose robust grasses for your area. Be sure to seed at the right time of year for the seed type.
- Practice rotational grazing. “Grazing horses on smaller, multiple pastures increases forage production without changing the stocking rate,” says Undersander. “In the dry summer months, pastures may need to be ‘rested’ for two to three weeks.”
- Overseed in the fall. Broadcast or overseed in the fall with a rotary spreader while soil temperatures are still warm. The fall is a great time to overseed—the days are still sunny, rainfall is abundant and the weeds are preparing to go dormant.
CHALLENGE 4: HEALTHY TURNOUT
The more opportunity your horse has to move around, the healthier all his systems will be–his hooves, digestive system, lungs, joints and even skin all benefit from movement. But living on a small acreage with limited turnout can make movement a tall order.
What you can do: Think outside the box when designing turnouts.
- Use temporary fencing to change the configuration of paddocks from time to time. At some small farms, a perimeter track within a paddock is used to encourage horses to be more active. By placing hay and water at various “stations” along the track, horses are encouraged to keep moving, even though the actual distance might be limited. You can even create various surfaces along the track, sand in sunny spots for lying down and resting, pea gravel for better hoof quality or little log jumps to make things interesting. It’s a little like designing a playscape for your horse.
- Make turnout easier with in-and-outs off the barn. Even when you’re not home, your horses can get inside out of the weather if they choose.
- Install run-in sheds in the paddocks or fields and build them into the fence-line so they don’t interfere with paddock space.
- Increase the amount of hay piles. Horses like to meander from grazing spot to grazing spot. Encourage their desire to roam by putting more piles—or slow-feeder hay nets—at various stations around the paddock. Place the water trough well away from any pile, and the horses will be forced to walk to get to it.
CHALLENGE 5: HAY STORAGE
One of the toughest challenges after turnout is where to store hay. “Ideally,” says Greene, “you’d want to buy the full quantity of hay needed for the year or season. This way you can test the hay and design the horses’ diets based on their individual needs; pasture ornament versus broodmare or competitive show horse, for instance.” Another advantage of buying hay in bulk is consistency. “Sudden or drastic changes to our horses’ diets, even with hay,” says Greene, “can cause digestive upset or laminitis."But on the small farm, places to store hay can be limited.
What you can do: Get savvy when it comes to buying and storing hay.
- Find a reliable hay supplier and ask him if you can pay a storage fee in his barn. Many hay suppliers are happy to sell their hay upfront and then deliver at regular intervals.
- Take care with the hay you do have—store hay in a leakproof building with adequate ventilation.
- Use slow feeders in stalls and in paddocks to slow hay consumption and stretch your hay dollar.
- Even if you can’t buy hay in large quantities, schedule regular deliveries. “Horse owners need to have a reliable source of hay for their horses,” says Coleman. “It can be a challenge when you can only buy in small quantities as it can mean that your feeding program changes with every load. Work with a reputable hay supplier that will allow you to purchase over time with possible storage at the supplier’s farm. Consistency in hay and nutrition is even more important on the small farm as there might not be enough pasture to provide all the nutrients your horses might need.”
We all wish we could buy that mythical 1,000-acre farm. The good news is that we can have all the advantages of the large farm on our small acreages with a little extra effort. Not only will we love how gorgeous our farm looks, but our horses (and our neighbors) will thank us as well.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.