How ‘Green’ Is Your Horse?
With the cost of electricity and fuel skyrocketing, combined with our growing awareness of the contribution of greenhouse gasses to climate change, now is a good time to ask yourself "how green is my horse?" If the answer is "not very," there's probably a lot you can do to improve things. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Use compost or manure for fertilizer
About one third of all energy used in U.S. agriculture goes into synthetic fertilizer and pesticide production, the most energy-intensive of all farm inputs. In contrast, manure (a byproduct which otherwise goes to waste) consumes no energy to produce. Switching from synthetic fertilizers to manure or compost will make your pastures much more nearly 'carbon-neutral'. Check out our recent tip on how and why to compost manure. Also avoid over-fertilizing; if your pasture is growing much faster and much more lushly than your grazers can take advantage of, you're just wasting time, money, and energy mowing more frequently than you need to. Finally, check your soil's pH annually (your agricultural extension office can test it for you) and apply lime as needed. If your soil's pH is too acidic (which is frequently the case here in the Piedmont) plants cannot benefit from the fertilizer you apply.
2. Encourage palatable legumes
Legumes (of which clover is an example), unlike most other plants, can 'harvest' nitrogen from the air thanks to nitrogen-fixing microorganisms living in their roots. Not only do they not require added fertilizer, but they actually act as fertilizers themselves, adding nitrogen to your soil (farmers call them "green manure"). If you use broadleaf herbicides in your pasture to control weeds you're killing off these valuable forage plants. Grass plus clover makes a fine pasture.
3. Grow the right grass for the job
Here in North Carolina, we're sold on tall fescue as the 'right' pasture grass; its survival through the drought of 2007, plus our horses' performance on a diet of fescue and clover, have convinced us that generations of Piedmont farmers can't be wrong. Besides its hardiness, fescue has another great advantage: you can let it grow tall in the fall and 'bank' it for winter grazing, thus reducing the amount of hay you'll need to buy to get through the winter. If you live elsewhere, a different grass might be best for your area; local farmers and your agricultural extension agent can advise you.
4. Perform an energy-use inventory of your barn, and eliminate waste
When we moved to New Avalon we inherited a barn which was an energy hog, including:
- A dozen 150 W incandescent bulbs. We replaced them with 26 W compact fluorescents in reflectors.
- Six box fans mounted flat against the walls, where they worked hard to move almost no air in the summer. We replaced them with one right-sized floor fan, strategically located, on a motion-sensing switch system we devised.
- A water heater running 24x7. We turned it off, and turn it back on for the relatively few hours each winter when we actually need it.
- Two powerful mercury-vapor floodlamps running 24x7. We re-wired them to work off wall switches, and use them only when needed.
- Numerous 100 gallon watering troughs, which waste large amounts of water every time they're drained and cleaned (remember that it takes electricity to pump water). We replaced them with strategically located watering fountains (each one retains no more than a few cups of water) fed by easy-to-work-with PEX plumbing. Our horses prefer the fountains to troughs, since each drink is fresh and clean and cool.
5. Right-size your tractor.
Some old farmers will tell you that "it takes as much tractor to farm five acres as it does for five hundred," but for most hobby farmers that's just not true; odds are you use your tractor for chores and mowing, not for tilling, planting, harvesting, and baling. Modern compact tractors, like our little 26 HP Kubota B2630, which we love, are fuel-efficient and can handle any implement you're actually likely to need, including our massive 60" Woods BrushBull mower. Mowing is the best and greenest way to control weeds in your pasture, so you want a fuel-efficient tractor to pull your mower. Don't even think about buying a gasoline-powered tractor (an oxymoron if ever we heard one); diesel engines are much more efficient than gas engines, and deliver far more torque. If you're really adventurous you might consider fueling it with 100% biodiesel (which is nearly carbon-neutral), but we're not quite there yet, ourselves.
6. Work to retain and expand local trail-riding resources
Local riding opportunities minimize the amount of trailering you need to do (and conserve green space). In our neck of the woods, two great organizations working hard to defend and expand equestrian resources are the Friends of Hill Forest and the Triangle Rails To Trails Conservancy. Your area doubtless has similar grass-roots organizations; consider becoming an active member.
7. Buy local
Whether you're buying hay, grain, stall mats, bedding, arena footing material, round-pen panels, or tack, remember that transportation costs are an ever-increasing contribution to the 'carbon footprint' of products. Identify local manufacturers and vendors where possible, and patronize them.
8. Don't buy it; build it
We admit that without an army of Ph.D. economists behind you, it can be tough to know for sure which is more environmentally friendly: building a round-pen (for instance) from peeler-core posts and 2x6s, or buying one made from pre-fabbed steel rail panels...but our personal belief is that the home-built solution is frequently likely to be the greener one...plus, it is almost always cheaper. An added benefit (which we're grateful to our friend, Cynthia, for pointing out) is that when horse meets wood in an unexpected violent incident the wood will usually break before the horse does. The same can't be said of steel.
9. Don't introduce non-native pests into your area
Many of the pests we wrestle unsuccessfully with today were once somebody's not-so-bright idea. Here in the Piedmont, we're constantly amazed by the number of folks who don't realize that it is a violation of both USDA's and the NC Dept. of Agriculture's fire ant quarantine regulations to import hay from many southern NC counties into northern and western ones (learn more here).