Should neighbors report you, or if someone downstream gets sick from your animals' waste, you could be in for heavy economic losses from lawsuits and fines from the EPA.
"As an example, fines can be as much as $100,000 per day for a dairy farm in violation," notes Dr. Don Topliff, who served on the American Horse Council's task force to provide data and testimony to the EPA regarding equine manure management.
Don't panic. Your horse operation may not be hassled unless it qualifies for Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) status. At the time of publication, a CAFO is one defined as 1,000 animal units (AUs) or 300 to 900 animal units that have direct discharge into navigable waters.
"Once you qualify as a CAFO, you're on the EPA's radar screen," the West Texas A&M University professor cautions.
Today, the EPA considers a horse as two animal units. In December, 2002, the EPA is expected to implement what's called its three-tier plan. If this occurs, 150 horses stabled for more than 45 days in any year will qualify as a CAFO. This means the operation is going to have to contain all runoff, which will be difficult and cost-prohibitive for fairgrounds and racetracks.
"This has the potential to be economically devastating for the horse industry," Topliff explains. "We said the EPA shouldn't count horses as two AUs. We believe the data used to make that determination is flawed. We told them that a 1,000-pound horse has roughly the same amount of waste as a 1,000-pound steer--a viable argument. We also told the EPA that if they go through with the three-tier plan and don't drop the two-AUs-per-horse criteria, they'll bring several thousand operations under the CAFO status."
Once a horse farm or facility qualifies as a CAFO, horse owners won't be able to fill up the wash created by overgrazing a pasture with manure and soiled bedding. They will also be required to obtain a discharge permit and develop a nutrient management plan with a certified planner.
"No longer will a five-acre pasture be sufficient land area on which to dump the cleaning from 100 stalls per day," he cautions.
He has advice for keeping on the environmental straight-and-narrow. "Pay attention to the disposal of manure and stall waste. Don't dump manure in a wash. If you apply manure to your land, run a soil test and make sure you're not getting too much phosphorus buildup in the soil. Phosphorus buildup is the biggest concern right now," Topliff notes.
He explains that composting is a good option--for now. "My concern is we're losing too much nitrogen out of a compost pile. When that occurs, ammonia and nitrous oxide are released into the air," the professor says. "These are exactly the EPA's hot buttons."
Although he worries about the EPA's regulatory testing, he believes that backyard horse operations shouldn't be paranoid about using composting for manure management.
The main thing, Topliff stresses, is that horse owners need to be proactive.
"Most state conservation agencies say you need some type of filter strip between the stream and places where animals might run and defecate," he says. "The size and type of the filter strip depends on area of the country and rainfall it receives. Contact your state environmental agency or the Natural Resource Conservation Service for advice."
It's important that all horse owners become good environmental stewards.
"Fence off streams and control erosion. Pen your horses and feed them if you don't have grass. Grow grass. It's all an expense, but we as an industry need to make those changes," Topliff says. "The entire animal industry is under the microscope of people who don't share our love of animals and the outdoors, and would like to see us out of business. Be vigilant and keep up with what's going on with the regulations.
"If we don't keep up," he warns, "at some point, somebody will make the changes for us."