Backyard horses, hobby farms part of nutrient load problem

At first glance, the numbers don’t add up.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture more than 90 percent of the farmers and ranchers in the Northern Everglades watershed are enrolled in the state’s Best Management Practices (BMP) program, which reduces the use of fertilizer and the chance of excess nutrient load in runoff into waterways. But according to information presented to the Florida Blue Green Algae Task Force, only about 75 percent of the agricultural lands in the watershed are enrolled in BMPs.

What’s going on with the other 25 percent? Most of the property owners don’t think they are “agriculture.”

At the Oct. 10 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District, Chris Petit, director of the FDACS Office of Agricultural Water Policy, explained: “When you tease out that 75 percent figure and you go to bona fide agriculture operations, when you go to operations that are greater than 50 acres, when you go to more intense agriculture operations, or irrigated agriculture, that number gets much higher,” he explained.

“One of the things we struggle with and we continue to have discussions with the DEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection), are the fallow parcels, are grazed lands — actually many of the folks that we end up referring to DEP — smaller parcels that are not bona fide agriculture per se, in that you’ve got a couple horses, couple goats, couple cows, folks that we try and get to and talk to them but they are smaller, that on a cumulative have some impact but it is very resource-intensive to get to.

“Five-acre equestrian ranchettes have a been a real challenge to try and get folks enrolled in the equestrian manual. That piece continues to be an area where we try to determine how to best dedicate resources to get at that issue,” he continued.

Pat Hogue of the Okeechobee Extension Office said the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (IFAS) hosts seminars for small farms and ranches to try to educate the public about what they need to do to prevent excess nutrient load in runoff from their property, but many don’t attend because it’s not on their radar.

“A lot of people moved in from the coastal areas in the mid 2000s,” said Mr. Hogue. “They don’t really consider themselves farmers but they have horse or a cow or two. They have their piece of Mother Earth.”

The hobby farmers and owners of “backyard horses” don’t think the nutrient load rules apply to them. But all of those animals on all of those smaller properties add up.

For example, in the Viking Properties development in rural Okeechobee County, the most lots sold were 1.25 acres. The zoning allows for each property owner to have two cow/calf pairs or two horses. So on 100 lots, or 125 acres, that could add up to 200 cows with calves. Cattle ranchers in Florida average about one cow/calf pair per six acres; on 125 acres the ranch would have about 21 cow/calf pairs.

While cattle on ranches primarily eat grass, a 1.25-acre properties will not produce enough grass to feed two cow/calf pairs. So the hobby farmer is bringing in feed for those cattle. That means the hobby farmer is importing nutrient load into the watershed at a much higher rate than a rancher would.

A rancher could not afford to buy that much feed, said Mr. Hogue.

Horses create additional challenges, especially if they are kept in stalls. A single 1,000-pound horse produces about 50 pounds of manure and stall waste a day, according to the state’s “Small Scale Horse Operations” BMPs.

Mr. Hogue said the Department of Agriculture is trying to reach these property owners to educate them on their part in protecting the environment. Many of the BMPs are common-sense things like fencing animals away from water that drains off the property; cross fencing to allow one area to regrow while animals graze on another area; preventing overgrazing by limiting the number of animals to what the property can support; using a tractor or a lawnmower to break up dried manure and distribute it more evenly on the grass so that it can be recycled naturally; and, using a compost pile to properly store and recycle excess manure from barns and high-use areas.

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