Implications for Horse Farm Owners

by Karen Marshall

fenced stream

Photo courtesy of Post Time Productions.

Manure management on farms is an oft discussed issue, and one sometimes overlooked by horse farms and facilities.  But as states move to conform to ever stricter surface and subsurface water quality regulations, facility and land managers need to pay more attention to their manure treatment methods.

Maryland, a contributor to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, provides a detailed example of new requirements, to be phased in over a period of years as part of the state’s continuing effort to reduce its stormwater runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorus.

This effort began with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and the subsequent Maryland 1998 Water Quality Improvement Act – comprehensive agricultural nutrient control legislation which required nutrient management plans for virtually all Maryland farms. Although horse country seems far from the bay’s shorelines, it is linked by a 17,000 mile network of streams and rivers. Over-nitrification, a major cause of the bay’s decline, is due to nonpoint source pollution stemming, in part, from soil erosion from pastures and rainwater runoff from unmanaged animal waste. The state must meet court-mandated nitrogen reduction goals established by the US Environmental Protection Agency for the Chesapeake Bay.

Most Maryland horse farms have traditionally managed their stall waste and field manure piles by routinely spreading them on pastures and hay fields. But recent revisions to state nutrient management regulations will apply to several aspects of horse farm management. The Maryland Horse Council participated in review and public comment on several sets of revisions to the nutrient management regulations.

Under the new requirements, effective October 2012, horse farm owners may need to change the timing of their manure spreading, stream access by horses and pasture runoff into streams.  Nutrient Management Plans will now be required for farms with eight or more horses or grossing $2500 or more a year for crop operations. The plans must comply with the new requirements which will be phased in over the next several years.

More specifically:

Seasonal Manure Spreading

  • No spreading in winter. Dairy or livestock operations with less than 50 animal units have until 2020 to comply with the winter application ban.
  • Manure can be spread on hay and pasture land from March 1 through November 15 through 2015. After July 1, 2016, manure can be spread March 1 through November 1 east of the Bay, and through November 15 west of the Bay.

Setback Requirements at Water Bodies

“Nutrient Application Setback” means a vegetated area of a prescribed width where nutrient-containing material may not be applied, as measured from the edge of surface water.

  • Horse manure may be stacked in fields “temporarily” when no other storage option is available, subject to certain setback requirements. Setbacks for field storage are, in brief, 35, 100, 200 or 300 feet from buffered streams (those protected by vegetation), un-buffered streams, residential wells, and down-gradient wells in that order.
  • Manure deposited by livestock or applied by machine must observe a 10 foot setback from surface water and streams in pastures and hayfields and a 35 foot setback for sacrifice lots.

Stream fencing and crossings

fenced stream credit University of Kentucky(1)

Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky.

Fencing horses out of streams is recommended.  However, other plans can be developed with the Soil Conservation District that include BMP’s such as stream crossings, alternative watering facilities, pasture management or other BMP’s that are equally protective of water quality. District staff may evaluate each site to determine the effectiveness of fencing alternatives in protecting water quality. Alternatives may be easier to manage or more cost-effective for farm managers. Additionally,

  • Stream crossings must have sediment and erosion control.
  • Stream crossings wider than 12 feet must be gated. Livestock may be allowed controlled access to streams for watering.

During the review and comment period, the Maryland Horse Council was able to influence a number of items in the early drafts. However, the MHC finds the final revisions that apply to dairies and horse farms alike to be overly burdensome for the latter. The Council’s view is that stockpiling or hauling off manure mixed with bedding during the winter months, rather than spreading it on pastures, will encourage brown water runoff from manure piles during heavy rains and necessitate heavier applications to fields in the early spring that will wash into streams during seasonal rains.

Horse manure is both drier than that of dairy cows and is mixed with straw or shavings from stalling horses during the winter months which, in the Council’s opinion, will protect pastures. According to the MHC no comparative water quality tests were conducted to assess the need for or effectiveness of the new prohibition on winter spreading of manure. The Council’s Farm Stewardship Committee is currently investigating the possibility of forming regional manure composting facilities that could make horse farm off-site composting feasible and affordable.

Regarding stream fencing, horses, unlike other livestock, do not wallow in streams. The MHC regards well-managed horse pastures as an asset to waterways. And estimates by some of the larger horse farms to fence out their streams indicate cost of $60,000 and upward.

The Council hopes to continue to work with state agencies and others that can assist horse farm owners with alternative best management practices and funding opportunities that will achieve nutrient management goals in a sustainable manner by this important sector of Maryland’s economy. Other states are developing their own manure management regulations and plans, especially those with critical watershed and water quality issues.

To learn more about Maryland’s regulations, Nutrient Management Plans and details about its Best Management Practices, contact Dr. Jo Mercer, Nutrient Mgmt. Program Manager, 410-841-5959; nminfo.mda@maryland.gov or go to the Maryland Agricultural Nutrient Management Plan. Maryland Agricultural Nutrient Management Plan.