Part-time farmers who keep horses sometimes get knocked for the quality of their pasture. Is the criticism justified? Do full-time farmers who keep horses have richer and more diverse grassland?
Researchers in Germany have delved into socio-economic factors to learn what bearings they have on pasture on farms with horses. Their findings, reported in the journal Sustainability, surprised them.
Cecilia Frauke Hüppe and her fellow researchers at the University of Göttingen thought that differences in income type (part-time or full-time farmers) and agricultural education would affect the characteristics of vegetation on the 122 farms they investigated.
This was not was the case. Neither factor had a direct or indirect bearing on pasture quality.
Instead, they found that the way each farm was structured (agricultural area, type of livestock and number of livestock), as well as paddock-level management, were the main drivers that affected grassland vegetation and ecological values.
The study team said socio-economic context is increasingly seen as a decisive factor for sustainable agricultural land use.
“The high prevalence of part-time farming and frequent lack of formal agricultural education within the equine sector is often seen as reasons why horse-grazed pastures do not fulfill their biodiversity potential,” they said.
Despite the substantial variability within horse farming, little is known about the relationship between socio-economic factors and vegetation characteristics on horse-grazed grasslands.
For their study, they collected data on 122 randomly selected horse farms in Germany over six years, classifying them into four socio-economic classes:
- A full-time business (with farming being the main source of income) with the property manager having an agricultural education;
- A full-time business without agricultural education;
- A part-time business with agricultural education; and
- A part-time business without agricultural education.
Their study focused only on for-profit farms; no hobby farms or private horse-keepers were included.
The researchers recorded farm structure parameters and grassland management practices based on interviews with the farm managers.
Vegetation composition was assessed on four paddocks per farm. In total, the study assessed 3540 hectares of agricultural land used by a total of 4930 horses.
The researchers found that socio-economic class partly explained the great variability in farm structures observed. But they did not affect grassland management.
“Part-time farming and lack of agricultural education thus did not adversely affect the ecological value of horse-grazed grasslands.”
The finding is important. Previous research has shown that an estimated 15 to 20% of the total grassland area in Germany is used for horse keeping. Similar figures have been recorded in other European countries.
The authors found that full-time farms kept more horses, farmed a larger grassland area and had a larger labour force than part-time farms.
Farms with a manager with agricultural education farmed a larger grassland area and purchased a smaller percentage of their roughage than farms without such education.
Full-time farms with agricultural education used a smaller proportion of their agricultural area for horses than full-time farms without such education, or part-time farms.
Most paddocks in the study were fertilised with mineral fertilisers. A smaller proportion was fertilised organically, while about a quarter of paddocks received no fertiliser at all.
Mineral fertilsation was more common when agricultural education was present than when it was absent, while the opposite was true for organic fertilisation.
“In both cases, however, the effect remained non-significant.”
Across all four farm socio-economic classes, the most common grassland maintenance practices were harrowing (87% of paddocks) and topping (71%), followed by rolling (31%).
The collecting of horse dung, the application of herbicides, and topping with removal of the cuttings, were practiced on less than 15% of the paddocks.
“In spite of numerical differences between the farm socio-economic classes, the only significant effect was found for reseeding, which was more commonly practiced on full-time than on part-time farms.”
They continued: “Farm socio-economic class showed very little relationship with vegetation characteristics.”
Discussing their findings, the researchers said the results confirmed the great variability that exists among horse farms. Farm size varied between 1.1 and 245 hectares, and the number of horses kept varied greatly.
“Full-time farms had a greater labour force, more horses and a larger grassland area than part-time farms. Farms belonging to this class are typically more conventional agricultural farms for which horse keeping serves as an extension of agricultural production.”
Full-time farms without agricultural education represented typical commercial horse farms with the main focus on horses, as farm managers’ education is often horse-orientated.
“These farms use a high proportion of their agricultural area for horses, in combination with a large number of horses, greater labour force, higher proportion of fodder purchased and smaller grassland area available.”
Smaller labour forces are characteristic of part-time farms. The number of horses and the grassland area per farm was also smaller.
“Similar to the full-time farms, a large proportion of the area was used with horses, showing that these farms are strongly horse-orientated.”
By including hobby horse keeping in future studies, the variability among horse farms could be even more pronounced, they said.
The researchers noted that several studies had highlighted the potential of horse grazing for maintaining species richness.
“However, part-time farming and grassland managers without agricultural education play an important role in the equine sector and have been associated with poor grassland management.”
The study findings confirm that socio-economic determinants of horse farms are important for farming decisions at different scales.
“Contrary to expectations, income type or agricultural education had limited effects on grassland management and affected vegetation characteristics neither directly nor indirectly.
“Consequently, these two socio-economic categories should not be considered as particularly important for maintaining grassland biodiversity and improving sustainability in horse husbandry.
“In particular, farm managers without agricultural education should not be disregarded when pursuing biodiversity aims.”
However, the different farm structures seen, and management at the paddock level, clearly affects vegetation characteristics.
“This variability,” they said, “offers scope for improving the ecological value of horse-grazed grassland.
“To realise the biodiversity potential provided by horse farms, grassland-specific education and extension of horse farmers remains crucial, but this need exists independent of income type or agricultural education background.”
The findings suggest that strategies targeting the development of sustainable grassland management in horse keeping need to integrate socio-economic determinants, but extra efforts are necessary to identify further socio-economic drivers associated with high ecological value of horse-grazed grasslands.
Hüppe, C.F.; Schmitz, A.; Tonn, B.; Isselstein, J. The Role of Socio-Economic Determinants of Horse Farms for Grassland Management, Vegetation Composition and Ecological Value. Sustainability 2020, 12, 10641.