Conservation Money, Assistance Available for Horse Farms
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Conservation Money, Assistance Available for Horse Farms
October 2012 - Suzanne Bush

The 2012 Farm Bill is in limbo for the time being, awaiting action from Congress.  This massive piece of legislation is not actually a new bill. Rather, it is an aggregation of policies that is passed every five years. It deals with a host of critical issues, from nutrition, to agricultural subsidies, to conservation and development of foreign markets for American agricultural products.

Although most people think of the Farm Bill as applying primarily to dairy, cattle and food crop farms, there are parts of the bill that horse farms can take advantage of. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognizes the importance of conserving land and protecting water. The good news is that the Farm Bill includes resources aimed at helping horse farms develop land and water management practices that will translate to benefits for horses and the environment. The even-better-news is that horse farms may qualify for financial assistance to implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) related to conservation.

The NRCS is now accepting applications for Fiscal Year 2013 financial assistance to help implement conservation practices that improve natural resources on Pennsylvania farms, forestland, and wetland areas. The deadline to submit applications to be considered in the first ranking period for Fiscal Year 2013 funding consideration is October 19, 2012.  Applications received after that date will be accepted and considered for funding if funds are available after first cycle applications are processed.

Practices that reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss on cropland; manage manure and nutrients associated with livestock production; improve wildlife habitat, or improve grazing systems are anticipated to continue to be eligible for funding assistance. Individual practices that have been historically popular include: waste storage facilities, grass waterways, no-till, cover crops, streamside buffers, prescribed grazing, feed management, nutrient management, and forest stand improvement.

Best Management Practices in Real Life
Ryders Lane Farm at Rutgers University in New Jersey is a showcase for Best Management Practices. Carey A. Williams, PhD, is the University’s Equine Extension Specialist. She was the leader in the project that turned Ryders Farm into a real life classroom for those who want to see what BMPs look like in practice. “We started six years ago,” she says, explaining that they “decided that Rutgers was supposed to be a place where people could learn about how to run their farms.” At the time, Ryders Farm was not exemplary in the ways Williams and her colleagues wished.

There were drainage problems and pasture problems, among other deficits that needed to be corrected. Williams says they got seed money from the State Equine Initiative, and credits the team she worked with on the multi-faceted success they achieved. “It turned into a great source of education,” she says. They focused on pasture management, equine nutrition, water resource management and manure management. “There are rain gardens and fences and bioswales,” she says. The fences keep horses from areas where manure runoff could contaminate water. And the bioswales are landscape elements that help remove pollutants and silt from surface runoff.

“There’s a self-guided tour of the farm, along with handouts and links to a virtual tour,” Williams says. Although she is an equine nutrition specialist, she says that several colleagues brought their expertise to the half-million dollar project, including Christopher Obropta, Michael Westendorf, William Bamka, Michael Fennell and Sarah Ralston. Their fields of expertise ranged from manure management, to animal interaction, composting and equine nutrition.

All of this effort and collaboration are reminders that conservation success and the implementation of BMPs require planning, expertise and... not insignificantly... money.

Getting Started
The NRCS provides free technical assistance to farmers, and has been doing so since the 1930s. According to Susan Parry, Natural Resource Specialist with NRCS, the agency has recently begun offering direct assistance to horse farms. “We cover any farm operation. Horse farms have not traditionally been considered farm operations, but now horses are considered livestock.” She says that since the state’s nutrient management regulations began to apply to horse farms, there has been a surge in interest among horse farmers about how to develop conservation programs.

“As of approximately three or four years ago, the state began to consider horses to be livestock. Therefore we began opening our programs to horse farms as livestock operations.” She explains that NRCS is not a regulatory agency, and it cannot compel farmers to change their practices. Instead, she says, the NRCS shows land owners how to get their farms into compliance with state regulations. “We work only with private landowners. Our programs are driven by what the land owners are looking for. We look at what their needs are, and manage our programs around those.”

Parry says that horse farm operators can contact NRCS for help with mitigating the impact of animals on their land. “Our goal is to help the landowner manage their property, while we get them into compliance with the state law. We’re not responsible for compliance, but the actions we help the landowner take will get them into compliance.” She says that they focus on the impact the horses have on the land, and how her agency can help the landowner lessen the impact. “We’re looking at the land and what’s happening on the land and how it affects water quality.”

When pastures are not given the opportunity to rest, grass quality diminishes and horses wind up suffering nutritionally. But in those cases pastures often wind up muddy or full of water that never drains properly. Again, it’s not a situation that is good for the horses; and it’s not a good situation for the land and nearby streams.

Specialists from NRCS help farmers develop practical solutions that are tailored to the individual situation. Farmers who want to take advantage of the technical assistance only need to call NRCS at (717) 237-2100.

“We also have financial assistance programs the farmer can apply for,” Parry says. “Horse owners may not qualify right away, especially the small farmers we have, they may never have worked with us before,” Parry says. ”Depending on the need, the acreage, the number of animals they have, it may take a year for them to qualify for the program.” But, she emphasizes, NRCS assistance is free.

Assistance Available Year Round
Although the deadline to apply for this round of funding is October 19, applications can be made year round. Despite the uncertain fate of the 2012 Farm Bill, NRCS plans to continue working with farmers in order to ensure that conservation projects go forward. The overarching goal is to help farmers protect land and water resources.

Parry encourages horse farm owners to check the website, www.pa.nrcs.usda.gov for information about how to get technical assistance, or how to apply for financial help to implement conservation programs. Parry says that any business that has horses--breeding operations, trail riding, boarding and training—is eligible for financial assistance. “The only folks that are not eligible are brokers.”