Winter is here! Life at the stable must go on!!
By Willie Woode, NVSWCD Senior Conservation Specialist
Winter months in the Northern VA areas can be brutal. If at any one time something on the horse farm should go wrong, it will be during these cold, wet, and miserable winter months. Here are a few essential things you can do to make life at your stable this winter be less eventful, and to properly position your operation for an effective spring.
Take stress off your pasture fields, and make effective use of your sacrifice (heavy-use) area.
During the cold winter months, pasture vegetation copes with prevailing stresses by going dormant, while the soil remains frozen or excessively wet most of the time. Therefore, it is best to help the pasture cope by taking the horses off the pasture fields, into a “sacrifice” area, if there is one in your stable. While in the sacrifice area, the horses get their much needed daily exercise, and have access to fresh hay, water, and salt. Prior to confining them into this area, some sacrifice area maintenance must be done. These include tasks such as:
- Maintaining the footing material by raking displaced portions back in place and/or adding more material if needed.
- Ensuring the fences and gates remain reliable, or repaired if necessary.
- Cleaning barn roof gutters, and making sure there is no spill-over onto the sacrifice area, and that downspouts are directed to discharge away from or beyond the sacrifice area. If surface runoff tends to cut through, install a diversion ditch to intercept and convey flows around this critical area.
- Making sure horses have free access into the barn or a shelter, which must be oriented such that it provides protection from cold winter winds from the north.
- Regularly cleaning droppings to ensure drainage layers (e.g. gravel, road dust and/or sand layers) are kept from clogging.
If you do not have a sacrifice area as part of your operation, consider creating one in the spring. For now, fence-off an area within your grassy fields to be used as a sacrifice area. This is the area within which the horses will be confined all winter, while the remaining grassy areas are allowed to rest. Preferably, this area is the one you will convert into a new sacrifice area in the spring.
All pasture fields that are left to rest during this period should be fertilized and limed (based on soil test recommendations) and all critical areas should be over-seeded in the fall.
Improve your manure handling and stacking practice.
Horse waste seems to be more of a nuisance during the winter months than in warmer months, especially when mixed with rain and/or snow. To better manage this problem, waste should be picked up regularly, stacked in a confined area with an impervious base, and covered to keep excess moisture and runoff out. These practices minimize mud, odor, and potential surface and ground water pollution.
Kept in this condition, the material can be composted. Proper composting conditions lead to significant volume reduction, which makes the pile easier to manage.
Prevent drinking water in troughs from freezing.
On cool days, horses can drink between 8–12 gallons of water per day depending on their size, health, age, and levels of physical activities. They will drink less if the water is too cold or too hot. Ideally, their drinking water temperatures should be kept within a 45–65ºF range. Not having your horses fully hydrated leads to colic and dehydration. Therefore, ensure adequate access to drinking water during winter months by breaking up and removing any ice forming over drinking water. A recommendation which requires less maintenance is to invest in heated stall buckets or trough heaters. If heating devices are used, you must regularly check the drinking water to ensure all equipment is in good condition and prevent electrical shocks. Don’t forget to insulate faucets and pipes that may freeze and create undue problems.
Other general farm and farm equipment overhauls.
The efficiency of even your most reliable tools and equipment can be jeopardized if they are not properly “winterized” to survive the season’s harshness. For instance, machines should be well-oiled and tuned-up; tools should be sharpened; weak fences, leaky pipes, broken gutters, and any roof issues should be repaired before we get into the thick of winter when all tasks become doubly challenging to accomplish.
After all is said and done, winter is here, and life at the stable must go on. If you’d like additional information on any of these recommendations, please contact the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District at ConservationDistrict@fairfaxcounty.gov.