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Helping Horse Owners Protect Florida’s Springs

Florida has nearly 400,000 horses, according to the 2018 survey by the American Horse Council. Many of these horses are managed on small-acreage farms and “ranchettes.” In North-Central Florida, the horse population is concentrated in counties with sensitive spring sheds and waterways. This means that horse owners play an important part in protecting Florida’s more than 700 springs, and delicate water resources.

Dr. Carissa Wickens, assistant professor in the UF/IFAS Department of Animal Sciences and an Extension equine specialist, studies how horse owners can modify their management practices to protect their state’s natural resources. Her current research focuses on how different manure and pasture best management practices (BMPs) impact both the environment and horse performance.

“I am passionate about the successful care and management of horses and about helping people solve problems,” Wickens said. “Protection of our water and natural resources has become increasingly important. Assisting owners with taking care of their horses through the use of management practices that also promote environmental stewardship is extremely rewarding.”

During the past two years, Wickens’ lab group has studied the effects of manure and pasture management practices on water quality, forage quality, horse health, and behavior. These projects were made possible through the funding provided by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy (FDACS OAWP).

Proper management of horse manure and stall waste can help protect water quality by reducing nutrient loading of surface and groundwater. However, there is limited information about the effects that composting and stockpiling stall waste on horse farms has on water quality. The first step for Wickens’ lab group has been to develop science-based BMPs for stored manure that are feasible for horse owners, particularly for smaller acreage equine facilities. The second step is to educate the equine community about implementing BMPs to prevent, reduce, or treat non-point source pollution.

“We want to make sure BMP recommendations are effective, but also feasible for property owners and equine operations to adopt,” Wickens said. “The findings from these studies are meant to inform educational programming that meets clientele needs and decision making concerning effective on-farm management strategies and cost-share programs for implementation of BMPs.”

The manure storage and management project supported by SWFWMD allowed Wickens’ team to identify farm cooperators. They identified properties with existing manure management areas or helped establish designated manure stockpile or manure composting areas on site. Agustin (Gus) Francisco, MS 2019, served as the lead graduate student on this manure management project. Underground drainage lysimeters and water runoff collection trenches were installed to collect water samples. The manure runoff samples were analyzed to identify the nutrient and bacterial content of water leachate and runoff. Cooperator farms served as demonstrate sites for extension programming on BMPs for equine operations.

Pasture management, particularly establishing a mixed legume-grass pasture, can help reduce the need for nitrogen inputs. It also improves forage quality of and vegetative cover in the pasture. UF/IFAS research has demonstrated the benefits of intercropping rhizoma (perennial) peanut into warm-season grass pastures for beef cattle production. However, this strategy had not been evaluated in grazing systems for horses.

Caroline Vasco, a Ph.D. student in animal sciences, serves as the project coordinator for the FDACS OAWP funded study to see if the benefits of intercropping rhizoma peanut apply to equine operations. The study is currently underway at the UF/IFAS Beef Research Unit. In this grazing study, mature horses (mare and gelding pairs) are assigned to different test pastures. The pastures are either unfertilized or fertilized bahiagrass, or bahiagrass intercropped with rhizoma peanut and with a reduced fertilizer. Forage samples are collected for analysis of nutrient and botanical composition. Horse health and performance are evaluated by measuring body condition score, weight, blood, and fecal parameters, and through behavioral observation.

Data are used to advise the application of BMPs to limit environmental impacts and to assist state agency decision making. Moreover, funded projects support significant extension and outreach activities. This outreach leads to increased awareness, knowledge, and implementation of BMPs within the equine industry. These projects have led to strong collaboration between state specialists, county faculty, and equine clientele. Both graduate and undergraduate students have been involved in this project through field, laboratory, and extension experiences.

“This has been a challenging, but extremely interesting and needed area of research for the equine industry,” Wickens said. “The partnerships developed through this research with fellow state specialists, county faculty, students, and farm cooperators have been fantastic. Through these projects, my students and I have had opportunities to attend different conferences and meetings to present our findings.”

At UF, Wickens has collaborated with assistant professor Mary Lusk and associate professor Mark Clark of the UF/IFAS Department of Soil and Water Sciences; associate professor Jose Dubeux, assistant professor Marcelo Wallau, and professor Lynn Sollenberger of the UF/IFAS Department of Agronomy; and associate professor Lori Warren and Jill Bobel in the UF/IFAS Department of Animal Sciences.

Wickens further recognizes animal sciences master’s student Ana Margarita Arias-Esquivel, 2019 CALS Summer Research Intern, Emma Seals, and numerous other graduate students, undergraduate students, and interns in animal sciences and agronomy for assisting. Students have been involved with the preparation of research sites, collection and processing of samples, and preparation and/or delivery of extension education programming and resources to help share results with state agency personnel and equine clientele. County agents Caitlin Bainum (Marion), Megan Mann (Lake), and Francisco Rivera (Hillsborough) have also played important roles in the integration of extension and outreach.

Journal of Extension and EDIS articles have been submitted and are pending review for the manure management project. Watch this video about the manure management project to learn more. The second year of the grazing study is taking place in summer 2020. For more on Carissa Wickens, Ph.D., visit her faculty profile. Find more information about UF Animal Sciences on our website. Stay in touch with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.