Development and implementation of an equine environmental stewardship program

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $135,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Grant Recipient: Penn State University
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Dr. Ann Swinker
Penn State University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, grass (misc. perennial), hay, sunflower


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, pasture renovation, stockpiled forages
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: value added, whole farm planning
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration, biodiversity, habitat enhancement
  • Pest Management: chemical control, precision herbicide use, weed ecology
  • Production Systems: holistic management
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, public participation, public policy, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Proper management of equine operations requires a series of complimentary Best Management Practices (BMPs), utilizing a comprehensive system approach to farm management. This approach should result in the adoption of strategies to preserve vegetative cover, to enhance pasture quality, to balance nutrient production with nutrient utilization, to properly manage excess manure nutrients, and to reduce sediment loss. It is critical for managers of all equine operations, large and small, to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to implement, modify, and improve pasture, nutrient, and sediment management systems for their operations. However, many horse farm operators have little or no agricultural background and lack the basic knowledge and skills necessary to make good management decisions. Agencies, such as Conservation Districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Cooperative Extension have not traditionally worked with equine operations and often lack the manpower and training to work with this industry. The Equine Environmental Stewardship Program is a comprehensive program that will provide educational opportunities for horse farm managers using a variety of delivery modes. Cooperative Extension specialists and educators will develop the curriculum and tools to evaluate pasture improvements, will train other educators and will assume a leadership role in implementing and evaluating the program. The outreach component will be a collaborative effort and will include representatives of NRCS and USDA. Four hundred horse farm operators will complete a short course that is designed to assist them in developing an environmentally sound farm plan, with 80% adopting at least two identified practices; 1000 will participate in individual workshops and on-line programs; 28 will serve as on-farm cooperators, with ten farms increasing canopy cover to 70 to 80 percent, reducing sediment loss by over a ton per acre per year, resulting in a potential soil loss savings of 37 tons per farm.

    Performance targets from proposal:

    1. A major goal of the project is to develop and offer the Equine Environmental Stewardship Short Course. The course, which will be offered at various locations throughout the region, will provide information and “hands on” learning experiences designed to provide horse owners with the knowledge and skills necessary to adopt sustainable and environmentally sound farm management practices. The short course will include a minimum of 12 hours of instruction and associated activities designed to allow participants to obtain the knowledge and gather the data they need to develop plans for their own farm operations. Horse owners and farm managers and owners in the program will:

    •Understand the role that grazing provides in enhancing equine nutrition and health.

    •Learn to manage the health risks that may be associated with forages and toxic plants.

    •Understand the importance of plants in absorbing soil nutrients and reducing soil erosion.

    •Properly collect soil samples, interpret the soil test results, and implement an environmentally sound fertility program based on the soil test report.

    •Be able to identify the major forage species.
    •Effectively renovate pastures by choosing forage species that are compatible with environmental conditions, farm stocking rates and management practices.

    •Be able to identify major weeds and toxic plants and understand the importance of properly identifying weeds and correcting management problems before using herbicides.

    •Develop sustainable pasture management plans by incorporating rotation, dry lots, and limited turnout into the grazing plan.

    •Quantitatively evaluate the pasture canopy cover and composition and complete a pasture condition score sheet for their farm operation.

    •Size run in sheds and stress lots appropriately for the number of equine sub groups.

    •Evaluate equine rations to reduce over-supplementation of nutrients.

    •Understand the role of excess nitrogen and phosphorous in contributing to contamination of ground and surface water.

    •Properly store and apply manure to reduce threats to ground and surface water.

    •Comply with current nutrient management regulations in the state.

    2. A second goal of the program is to offer a series of “stand alone” workshops and educational opportunities using a variety of delivery methods for diverse clientele groups. Workshops and web-based programming will be provided for horse owners as well as equine professionals, veterinarians, agricultural service providers, and agency representatives that deal with managers of equine operations.

    3. A third goal is to work directly with farm cooperators to identify, implement, and evaluate
    pre-determined, environmentally sound farm management practices. The data will be collected and published in professional magazines and made available to industry stake holders.

    Performance Targets:
    1. Cooperative Extension specialists and educators will develop the curriculum, teaching materials, and tools to evaluate pasture improvements, will train other educators, and will assume a leadership role in implementing and evaluating the program. A minimum of 20 Extension Agents, equine and agricultural agency and industry representatives in three states will participate in trainings and will be provided with the tools necessary to provide educational outreach opportunities and document impact.

    2. In order to provide managers of equine operations in Pennsylvania and surrounding states with the knowledge and tools they need to adopt environmentally sound farm management practices, 400 farm managers will complete the Equine Environmental Stewardship short course and will develop a farm plan that includes at least two strategies to improve pasture and manure management practice. A minimum of 80% (288) of these managers, representing 10,656 acres, will implement two or more of the strategies identified in their farm plan.

    3. Web sites and on-line opportunities will be developed to provide educational opportunities for managers of equine operations that cannot attend a short course. Over 10,000 farm managers in the NE region will participate in on-line training opportunities with 30% (3,000) responding to a post program survey designed to identify conservational and farm management practices that they planned to adopt on their equine operations.

    4. Twenty-eight equine operation managers will be selected to participate in a program designed to provide individual assistance and a multi-year plan to reduce nutrient inputs and /or improve pasture conditions and manure handling practices on the farm. Identified practices will be specific to the site conditions and management practices on each farm. The farm manager will be asked to participate in on-farm trials that may include: monitoring and reducing phosphorous levels in feed; handling, composting, storing and applying manure; incorporating rotational grazing paddocks and stress lots into turn-out regimes; utilizing new species of forages and ground covers; and developing new approaches to managing annual and perennial forages in pastures and heavy use areas.

    Of the 28 equine operations that participate as cooperators, 100% (28 farms, representing 1,036 acres) will implement at least two identified practices designed to reduce phosphorous levels in their feed and /or reduce soil and nutrient loss by increasing canopy cover within the pastures. 100% of the farmers that develop plans to improve pastures will show an improvement in canopy cover, forage quantity, and pasture conditions. Most literature reports the need for maintaining 70-75% vegetative cover in pastures. Below this level significant sediment loss can occur. A minimum of 10 of the 28 farms will be selected for this project based on the criteria that the pastures are overgrazed and have canopy covers that are determined to be less than 50%. The target for the 10 farms is to increase canopy cover to 70 to 80% which will reduce sediment loss by over 1 ton per acre, per year resulting in a potential soil loss savings of 37 tons per farm). Soil loss figures will be derived using RUSLE2 Erosion Calculations.

    Routine overfeeding of dietary protein and phosphorus results in significant nutrient losses in manure. Previous work (Harper & Swinker, 2009) shows equine ration’s protein levels averaged 62% and phosphorus 92% above the NRC (2007) requirements. If horse owners fed rations that met NRC requirements this would result in reduced nutrient loads in watersheds throughout the state. The adoption of lower-nitrogen and phosphorus feeding practices for the 28 test farms (350 equine) is expected to result in reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loading. This reduction of feed (8 -10 lbs of grain/concentrates @ $15/50lb bags, to 4-5 lbs and increased forage) would save farms an average of $219 per horse/ yr or $76,650 total. If 30% of PA’s operations (approximately 64,800 equine), implement feeding practices that meet requirements, there would a reduction of 195 tons of nitrogen and 56 tons of phosphorus/yr, respectively. Collectively, the 30% of horse farms would save $14 million/yr.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.