Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
A sprawling ranch with endless pastures may seem like the ideal horse farm. The most pressing horsekeeping issue is how to keep the fences in good repair before it gets dark. The reality is often very different. Horse owners who live on small acres know the difficulties it can present. If your land is small, you might face problems such as muddy boots, overgrazed pastures, and too-small turnouts.
You won’t be buying a lot of spreads unless you win a lottery. Don’t worry–you’re in good company. The new standard for small horse farms is actually the 10-acre or smaller. It is logical. The more people there are, the smaller the space available for large animals such as horses.
Horsekeeping isn’t just surviving in suburban states like New Jersey or Connecticut. It’s thriving. Similar situations are likely to be found in your area. Horse ownership is not discouraged by a lack of open space. It shouldn’t. Despite the challenges, horses can adapt and thrive on small acreages.
Bob Coleman, PhD is an equine extension specialist at the University of Kentucky. “When space is scarce, we need to become even better stewards to avoid damage to the land.” Overgrazing, manure management, and water runoff are all major problems. Overgrazing can result in bare soil and weeds taking over. A well-managed farm will have healthy green pastures, at least for the warmer months.
Good stewardship doesn’t mean looking good.
You’ll see how each part of your farm is connected if you view it as a living entity. It’s similar to taking care of your horse: you groom him, feed him, trim his nails, and make sure he is up-to-date on his vaccinations. Neglecting one of these could lead to serious problems for your horse’s overall health.
For example, weedy and overgrazed fields don’t retain water well, which can lead to runoff that could contaminate ground and surface waters. Non-point source pollution includes fertilizer, pesticides and fecal waste. Small farms can be hampered by neighbors, who may have legitimate complaints.
Many states have established guidelines for small-scale farm management to assist horse owners. “Most states have regulations about how far a manure heap must be from waterways, wells, or neighbor’s land,” Betsy Greene PhD, former University of Vermont equine extension specialist, now at the University of Arizona. “In Vermont, there are statewide restrictions called accepted agricultural practices (AAPs), that set out the rules and regulations. The AAPs have become mandatory agricultural practices due to the recent passage of the state Water Quality Bill.
Farm owners who are good managers may be eligible for tax credits or financial assistance from the state. It’s like free mentoring – after all, what’s best for the environment is also good for our horses.
You might notice a few things that need attention on your farm. These are some strategies that can help you overcome the difficulties of keeping horses on small farms.
CHALLENGE 1 – MAJOR MANURE PILES
Most horsekeepers would answer the same question: how to manage our ever-growing manure pile. Greene says that a typical 1,000-pound horse can produce almost 40 pounds per day. Greene says that if your horse spends time in a stall it is likely to add bedding. This can add 15 to 20 pounds to the pile.
That manure pile is not just an eyesore. Manure that isn’t composted can harbor parasites such as strongyles or roundworms. It will attract pests and flies during the warmer months. It will let contaminants from the manure pile leach into the ground and surface water when it rains.
What you could do? Compost it. You’ll be able to see the interior of the manure pile if you have ever dug in it with a shovel or your tractor. It’s a lot like wet dirt. This is compost. It can be used to fertilize or amend soil. If you have avoided composting due to its complexity, it is worth taking a look at the basics. It is much easier than you might think.
Greene says that “certain things must occur for manure or stall waste to be through the active composting procedure.” Greene says that manure piles should be twice as tall at the base as they are high. This helps keep the pile at the correct temperature, between 110 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. A compost thermometer can be purchased at most garden shops or nurseries. High temperatures destroy pathogens and bacteria as well as make the material useful fertilizer.
These are the three essential elements of a successful compost pile:
- Air. Manure is made from manure by insects, earthworms, and other hard-working microbes. To thrive, aerobic organisms require air. They are the ones that can quickly and efficiently decompose your pile in just a few weeks. Even if you don’t own a tractor, getting air into your manure pile does not have to be difficult. Toss the pile once per week if it is manageable. If you have a tractor, turning it can be even more beneficial. Install two to three PVC pipes perforated (approximately five feet in length) into the compost if neither of these options are available. These will act as chimneys and circulate air through the compost pile. If your compost pile isn’t adequately aerated, it will produce a foul-smelling odor similar to rotten eggs. That’s a sign you have anaerobic decomposition–decomposition by organisms that thrive on a lack of air. Anaerobic states emit methane gas which is a powerful contributor to global warming. The material that is created isn’t suitable for fertilizer. Anaerobic organisms work less. Although the manure is still being broken down, it could take many years. In the meantime, it can be a source for pollution.
- Moisture. For efficient microbial activity, your compost pile must have moisture. You should aim for a moisture level of between 40 and 60 percent. If the pile is too moist, it will cause the pile to become compressed and prevent beneficial aerobic decomposition. Grab a handful of material, and squeeze it. It should feel wet, but not wet. You can cover the pile with a tarp in the rainy season if it is too wet. You might need to add water if it is too dry. If it’s too dry, you might need to add water.
- The correct carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. The ideal ratio should be between 25:1 to 30:1, with carbon being higher. Wood shavings can have a 500:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, which is why excessive shavings in the compost can really slow down things. You should do your best to avoid wood shavings from the compost pile. However, if they do manage to sneak in, you can balance the ratio by adding more horse manure or grass clippings, or chicken manure.
Coleman recommends that farm owners get to know their local extension agents. They can give clear instructions on how to prepare an area to compost, ignite the pile, and keep it going. Coleman says that most horse owners can compost their horses’ manure easily. This is a valuable and useful resource that you can use to feed your farm’s grasses and plants. You can also hire a private hauler to remove the compost weekly or monthly if it is not possible. Greene says that some Vermont stables have arranged with companies to provide an on-site roll-off dumpster which is picked up weekly or as required.
CHALLENGE 2: MUD, MUD, AND MORE MUD
The mud is a constant problem on a small farm. Mud is a magnet for bacteria and parasites, and flies love it. It’s also messy and unsightly. We can blame the weather for the mud, but the issue isn’t so much the amount of rain that falls but how it travels after it hits the ground. A muddy mire will soon form if water pools near high-traffic areas such as gates, feeders, and watering troughs.
What can you do? You can’t stop rain from falling but you can redirect it.
- Every structure that has a roof should have gutters and downspouts. A small barn with four to six stalls can store 600 gallons of water per inch of rain. This is a great reason to provide water direction.
- You can install berms, French drains, or swales. These are similar to gutters on roofed structures. They carry water away from paddocks and fields arenas as well as along driveways.
- For low spots, construct a catch basin. Consider hiring a contractor to install a catch basin that will catch rainwater and drain it through underground pipes. A basin measuring two-by-two- or three-by-three-foot is sufficient for farm use. While it may seem expensive, the benefits of having a dry property far exceed the cost.
- Renovate areas that are heavily compacted or high-traffic. Greene tells the story of success at University of Vermont’s equine facility. The mud was a problem in high traffic areas, particularly in spring. Greene describes how they replaced 8 inches of topsoil with a layer geotextile fabric, 4 inches of large stones (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches), and then added four inches of dirty peastone on top. It created a stone sandwich which allowed water to flow beneath the compacted top to a slightly angled PVC tube buried under the travel lanes to the grass buffer. This French drain was also a success.
CHALLENGE 3 – OVERGRAZED PASTURES
The rare small acreage that can supply 100 percent of horses’ nutritional needs is not common. They will most likely need to supplement their horse’s nutritional needs with high-quality hay. Even small pastures can offer vital grazing for at least part 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. Rainwater can run along the surface of hard, compacted soils, carrying sediments, manure, and other pollutants to the ground and surface waters. Weeds thrive under difficult conditions and crowd out healthy grasses. It is possible to cultivate a nutritious and healthy pasture on a small area of land if you observe a few rules. Dan Undersander says that the recommended pasture stocking rate is 1,000 horses per two to three acres. Overstocking is a major mistake on small-acreage horse farms. If you have eight to ten horses and they graze the grass too often, it can cause the grass to die. Another side is that there are too many horses to maintain the pasture. One horse can only manage 10 acres. The weeds then take control.
What can you do? Restore your pasture that has been overgrazed with these steps:
- Every three to five years, take a soil sample. Undersander says that you should take samples from several different locations. However, it is important to avoid areas near roads, sandy areas, or areas with high erosion. “You want to find an average soil fertility in the field. The soil sample will reveal what minerals your pasture requires. Many horse pastures that have been overgrazed are low in phosphorus.
- Reduce the number of weeds that are causing serious problems. The most serious problem in horse pastures is perennial broadleaf. However, identifying the weeds will help you to control them. Although you can’t eliminate all weeds from your pasture, Undersander suggests that you tackle any patches of thistle or other weeds measuring two by three feet or greater. The problem should be controlled with one to two applications of herbicide.
- Fertilize according to your soil sample. Grass needs special care, just like horses. Undersander says that soil fertility is crucial. You can feed your horse what you need once you understand what your soil needs. You can alter the horse’s acreage by changing the number of horses, the feed or supplement program, or simply feeding more grain. This can affect the mineral content in the horse’s manure. Based on another soil test, you might need to re-fertilize.
- The right seed is the one that suits your soil and climate. This will depend on your location and the soil conditions. Consider factors such as soil fertility, drainage issues and acidity. Also consider climate hardiness, suitability for horses, and suitability. The county extension office can help to choose the right grasses for you. Seed at the correct time of the year to ensure the best seed type.
- Practice rotational grazing. Undersander says that horses can be grazed on smaller, more diverse pastures to increase forage production and decrease stocking rates. “Pastures may need to be’rested” for up to two weeks during the dry summer months.
- In the fall, overseed. Broadcast the seeds in the fall using a rotary spreading machine while the soil is still warm. Fall is a wonderful time to overseed because it is still sunny and there is plenty of rainfall.
CHALLENGE 4 – HEALTHY TURNOUT
Your horse’s health will improve if he has more movement. His hooves and digestive system, as well as his lungs, skin, joints, and lungs all benefit from it. However, movement can be difficult on small properties with little turnout.
What you could do: Think out of the box when designing turnouts.
- To change the layout of paddocks, you can use temporary fencing. A perimeter track is used by some farms to encourage horses to move more. Horses are encouraged to move even though they may only be able to travel a short distance. Hay and water can be placed at different “stations” along this track. There are many surfaces you can create along the track. Sand in sunny spots is good for resting and lying down, while pea gravel improves hoof quality, or log jumps make it more interesting. It’s almost like creating a playground for your horse.
- Turnout can be made easier by using in-and outs from the barn. Your horses have the option to go inside even if you aren’t there.
- Run-in sheds can be installed in paddocks and fields. They should be built into the fence line so that they don’t block paddock space.
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- Increase the number of hay piles. Horses love to move from one grazing spot into another. You can encourage horses to roam by placing piles or slow-feeder hay nets at various points around your paddock. The horses will have to walk to the water trough if it is not too far from any pile.
CHALLENGE 5 – HAY STORAGE
The most difficult challenge after turnout is where to store your hay. Greene says that it is ideal to purchase the entire year’s worth of hay. You can also test the hay and create horse diets that are suited to each horse’s needs. For example, you could buy hay in bulk for consistency. Greene says sudden or severe changes in horses’ diets, even with Hay, can cause digestive upset or laminitis. But small farms may have limited storage options.
What you should do: Be savvy about buying and storing hay.
- Ask a reliable supplier for hay if you are able to pay storage fees in his barn. Many hay suppliers will sell their hay upfront, and then deliver the hay at regular intervals.
- You must take care of the hay that you have. Store it in a dry, insulated building with sufficient ventilation.
- To slow down hay consumption and increase your hay dollars, use slow feeders both in stalls or in paddocks.
- Even if you can’t buy hay in large quantities, schedule regular deliveries. Coleman says that horse owners must have reliable access to hay for their horses. It can be difficult to buy small quantities of hay, as this can cause your feeding program to change with each load. A reliable supplier of hay will work with you to allow you to buy over time and store at the supplier’s farm. Because there may not be enough pasture for your horses to get all the nutrients they need, consistency in hay and nutrition are even more important.
All of us wish we could purchase that 1,000-acre farm. With a little more effort, we can still enjoy all the benefits of a large farm but with smaller acreages. We will love how beautiful our farm looks and our horses, as well as our neighbors, will be grateful.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!