Most of us would rather do better than a C minus, but when it comes to reducing our carbon hoofprint, that’s exactly where we should be headed.
Carbon (C) is the sixth element on the periodic table and is a truly international currency. It is a crucial building block of life and nations are beginning to trade in it.
Pretty much everything we humans do has some carbon cost, contributing to what we call our carbon footprint.
Keeping horses has a very real carbon cost, too. They use it, expel it, and the running around to keep them happy and performing well involves plenty of carbon emissions – and cash.
Can we reduce the carbon hoofprint of our horses? Most definitely, and doing so comes with an added bonus. Just about everything we do to reduce our horse’s carbon hoofprint will save us hard-earned cash.
How much carbon output are we responsible for in a year?
Estimates vary, but your average New Zealander is responsible for about seven tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or their equivalent, in a year.
Calculating true carbon costs is not necessarily straightforward.
For example, we could suggest “buying local” for all our horse feed to reduce so-called “food miles” – the carbon cost of shipping food around the world.
But food miles don’t take into account the efficiency of producing the food in the first place – an argument our farmers voice loudly over European concerns about the food miles of our agricultural goods.
Am I carbon friendly?People between 50 and 65 tend to have a bigger carbon footprint than younger people. British research indicates they produce 10% to 20% more carbon each year than the national average.The British average is 12 tonnes a person per year, while the older age group is around 13.5 tonnes.Higher incomes means they’re more likely to be out and about spending their cash on carbon-producing activities.
The imported beet pulp many people feed their horses is a good example. Sugar beet is processed primarily to extract its sugar. The left-over material is processed into a fibre-rich feed for horses. Your beet pulp is actually a marvellous byproduct.
What exactly is a carbon footprint? Put simply, it’s a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases our activities produce.
The global average for carbon output is six tonnes per person. In some of the poorest places, people are responsible for as little as one tonne a year, indicating that the industrialised West, and rapidly expanding developing economies such as China, are major contributors to global warming.
It’s the simple stuff that will determine whether your average horse-owning family does better or worse than the average.
Surging fuel prices and the rising cost of living have seen us all focusing on ways to save money in our day-to-day living.
We’ve all looked at the simple stuff, like using our vehicles smarter: combining trips to ensure we don’t waste fuel, and looking after them well to ensure they burn their fuel efficiently. Then there’s using energy-efficient appliances in houses and outbuildings.
On your home block, applying similar principles will help. Leave your quad bike in the shed and walk instead. If you pick up dung on a trailer behind your bike, why not use a wheelbarrow occasionally? Is your bike overdue for a fuel-saving tune? Do you leave it idling for long periods? Why not turn it off?
When did you last check the tyre pressures on your bike or tractor? Tractor tyres under-inflated by just two pounds per square inch (psi) can increase fuel use by 3%.
One friend has even resorted to her mountain bike for running odd jobs around her wee farm. She says it works well as long as the ground isn’t too wet.
Have energy efficient lightbulbs made it beyond your home to the farm sheds yet?
Have you gone around and turned off all those appliances on standby which are collectively adding to your power bill by the hour? What about items such as iPod and cellphone chargers? All these so-called vampires are drawing a little current all the time.
Simple things can make big savings. Showering for two minutes less each time will save 155kg in carbon output a year. Replacing one 75-watt bulb with a 19-watt energy-saver bulb and can save 25kg annually. A vegetarian diet produces 431kg less in carbon a year than that of your average meat-eater. And just the simple act of recycling paper, plastic and glass and save 454kg a year. You can also help by paying your bills electronically.
So what savings are possible on your horse property beyond making efficiency gains in electricity and fuel use? Farms that go down the energy-conservation path find their reduction in carbon output also adds up to very real savings in cash.
For horse owners, there are two major areas that will affect how carbon-friendly their horse-keeping really is:
- How you deal with your horse dung.
- How you care for your land and pasture.
The first important thing to realise in the battle to reduce carbon emissions is that not all greenhouse gases are created equal. We hear a lot about carbon dioxide, but there are far worse greenhouse gases being produced.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Even worse is nitrous oxide, which is a mind-blowing 310 times worse than carbon dioxide. This number is known as their carbon equivalent. That means the output of any activity can be measured in these carbon equivalents so we get a true measure that allows for the different kinds of greenhouse gases we produce.
So what kinds of activities produce these gases? Carbon dioxide is the main byproduct from burning fuel in our vehicles. It is also a byproduct in producing some of our electricity.
On farms, methane is a major part of animal flatulence, particularly cows. Cow flatulence is seen as a particular problem and research projects are under way around the globe to minimise the problem. Remember efforts to introduce the controversial “fart tax”?
But both methane and nitrous oxide can also be a major problem in the poor composting of manure. Unless you’re making an effort to compost your horse manure in the proper manner, there’s a real possibility your dung mountain is releasing unnecessarily large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.
Even the most efficient composting has a carbon price. In fact, a significant portion of the carbon in organic material is likely to be returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
But composting is seen as positive because the alternatives are far from ideal. You’re not burning fossil fuels in taking it to the dump or rubbish transfer station. And any compostible material that goes to landfill can produce methane – which we know is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
And if you produce good compost you should be able to reduce your bill for fertiliser – that’s saving not only the carbon cost of producing the fertiliser but also that from carting it to your properly and applying it.
There are two kinds of composting – aerobic (with air) and anaerobic (without). Both produce greenhouse gases, but aerobic decomposition will produce much less and give you a far more user-friendly end-product.
Canadian researcher Gurpreet Singh spent three months messing around with vast quantities of cow dung to give us some idea of what is involved. He spent three months mixing and composting a 50-tonne pile of the stuff, ensuring it was kept well aerated, while another pile was left untouched.
The static pile generated 233kg of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions per tonne, while the turned pile emitted a mere 92kg of equivalent carbon dioxide.
He also noted the superior quality and texture of his tended compost when compared to the anaerobic pile of gunge.
Composting horse dung was covered in detail here, but the key elements are using plenty of green matter such as leaves or grass clippings (about half) with the dung, keeping it in piles shaped in such a way that the heat will build up, maintaining the right degree of moisture, and aerating it regularly with a strong stick or similar to keep the air flowing through it.
By contrast, an uncared-for anaerobic pile is likely to generate a foul-smelling sludge as it breaks down and releases its greenhouse gases.
If you’re now feeling guilty about your dung mountain, you’re certainly not the only transgressor. A British researcher believes as many as three-quarters of homes composting their glass clippings, vegetable peelings and the like are not aerating their heaps properly, contributing to methane release.
Interestingly, energy from composting without air can be commercially harnessed. Some dairy farms, for example, have installed anaerobic digesters to compost their cow dung. The resulting methane is collected and used to reduce the farm’s energy bills.
Research published in July suggests converting livestock manure into a domestic renewable fuel source could generate enough electricity to meet up to 3% of North America’s entire consumption needs, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For the record, that’s 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.
Soils and pasture are other important areas where horse owners can make a difference, especially if their plans involve using compost.A lot of research is continuing to lower the carbon output of farming activities, but there’s general acceptance that no-till or minimum till management of the earth reduces carbon output. Some experts point out that any benefits from no-till management is immediately lost when the ground is ploughed, so it’s a long-term commitment if it’s to work.
Essentially, the healthier your grass and soil, the more carbon it will be able to lock up. Healthy grass is better able to use the nitrogen available to it and it also means a healthy root structure, which again locks up carbon.
Studies have shown that carbon stored in soil through applying compost can be increased by six to 40 tonnes of carbon per hectare. Compost-rich soil also requires less irrigation because the healthier root systems of the grass can store more water. This will also reduce runoff and cut the risk of erosion. Healthy roots can reduce irrigation needs by 30% to 70%.
What about a green Christmas?
What does your horse get for Christmas? Perhaps it’s a new halter and a few extra carrots come dinner time. If people enjoyed a simple Christmas we’d be saving a heap of carbon output.
British research reveals that up to 5% of an individual’s carbon output in a year can be related to Christmas. Food, travel, lighting, gifts – and the energy used in getting them – can amount to 650kg of carbon per person. A simpler Christmas can be had for around 250kg of carbon, and your wallet will be a lot healthier as a result.
Nearly half of that 620kg extravagant Christmas is used up in Christmas shopping. The carbon cost of all that food? 26kg.
Pasture can be renewed and rejuvenated without necessarily having to resort to ploughing. Talk to local farm contractors about your options.
Getting your compost back on the pasture will reduce your requirement for fertiliser, which itself has a carbon cost.
Unfortunately, unless you have a suitable spreader, this will be labour intensive. Depending on quantities, distribute it from a trailer and then harrow to distribute it more evenly.
Well-made compost will be dark and crumbly and should spread easily. It is earthy-smelling and almost like potting soil. It will not only provide nutrients but, just as importantly, improve the structure of the soil, particularly with clay or sandy soils. Both will promote grass growth.
Why not just harrow your manure on the paddock and be done with it? Why compost at all?
The key plus for horse owners is breaking the parasite cycle. Composting kills larvae so the material you return will break that cycle. The high heat from composting should also kill weed seeds – another cycle broken.
Compost acts as a wonderful slow-release fertiliser. It will have less smell than manure and there’s a good chance your fly problems will be reduced.Smaller quantities of additional fertiliser may ultimately be necessary to obtain acceptable growth yields when compost is applied as fertiliser.
If you don’t collect your manure, harrowing is the other option. Do it on a hot day, as the heat can kill parastic larvae exposed to the elements as the dung is broken up. However, the reality is that you could well be spreading your worm problem.
Remove the horses from the paddock for at least two to four weeks.
If you’re spreading manure, it can use up valuable soil nitrogen while breaking down in the field. Compost does not run this risk as it has already broken down.
It should be stressed that harrowing is a distant second to collecting and composting manure.
You should also remove your horses for a time from “composted” paddocks, but less time is needed.
And don’t forget trees. Trees are not only great for storing carbon, but if you select your species well you can add value to your property and provide welcome shelter for your horses. Be careful to protect young specimens from curious horses (and rabbits) and ensure the species you plant are not poisonous.
Even increasing the amount of greenery around your home can make a difference, as well as providing a more pleasant environment for your family and local wildlife.
And don’t waste water. Chances are electricity has been used to pump it out of the ground and on to your property.
There are dozens of so-called carbon calculators on line which you can use to work out how much carbon you produce each year. Many will even let you know how many trees you need to plant to offset your carbon output.
If you don’t own land or you can’t accommodate any more trees, there are schemes where you can pay others to plant trees or, for a surprisingly modest amount, you can help “lock up” areas of rain forest to prevent their destruction through clear-felling. Check the internet.
Have you changed to reuseable shopping bags at the supermarket? There’s nothing to stop you taking them to your local feed merchant or saddlery. Every plastic bag you don’t use will help.
You could also help by avoiding items with extravagant packaging, which costs carbon to produce.
Much you can do to reduce your carbon hoofprint revolves less around doing without and more around using energy smarter. A significant portion of the electricity we use has a carbon cost so saving it will not only reduce that cost, but save you money, too.
That aside, food miles are important to consider. While you don’t want to be messing with your horse’s diet too much, there are seasonal offerings that can make a valuable contribution to your horse’s diet. Locally grown carrot “seconds”, for example, can be very affordable in season, as can windblown or damaged apples if you have orchards nearby.
Buy your hay and other forage feeds in bulk, as much as you can afford. One trip with your float to pick up 20 bales will be far more cost effective than getting two at a time in your boot.
Can you make a difference? Your individual efforts will amount to only a small drop in a large carbon bucket, but your green ways may well prove contagious. Friends will see your efforts and you might even mention a few of the savings you’ve made. Gradually, the ideas will catch on.
Who had even heard of a carbon footprint 10 years ago? Or seen a hybrid car? Even heat pumps in homes were a rarity back then. Change does happen, and you can help drive it.
First published on Horsetalk.co.nz in October, 2008.
Recommended New Zealand website: www.carbonzero.co.nz