Climate Change, what does it mean for the horse owner?

This article was first published in the June-July issue of Hoofbeats magazine.

Plan-it Rural

The scientific community accepts that human-induced climate change is a reality. This issue poses significant challenges for all of us to tackle, both in reducing our contribution to the problem through our emissions but also in adapting to the climate impacts that are now unavoidably ahead of us. This is most relevant to those of us who manage land, either for farming or recreational pursuits such as the riding and breeding of horses.

This climate change challenge means that action is no longer just the realm of extreme ‘greenies’ doing the right thing environmentally. It makes sense for all of us to take action to protect ourselves from increasing exposure to physical and financial risks such as impacts on infrastructure, insurance, animal welfare, and the costs of farm inputs and waste disposal.

Emissions from agriculture (including land use change and energy use), account for up to 17% of Australia’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than our transport system! Other than land use change and energy use, the main sources of emissions within the Australian agriculture sector are:

• Methane produced by enteric (intestinal) fermentation (mostly in ruminants ie cattle, sheep etc) and emissions from manure management;

• The release of nitrous oxide from soils (especially following the application of nitrogenous fertilisers); and

• Prescribed burning of grassy plains in tropical and subtropical regions (savannas).

In 2009, methane production in livestock (mostly cattle and sheep) and manure management accounted for 69.3% of agricultural emissions It is important to note that Australia’s national greenhouse accounting does not currently capture individual actions, particularly on farms. However, that does not mean that we should not take action, to protect and prepare our animals, our community and ourselves.

When we seek to conduct an enterprise in an ‘ecologically responsible’ manner, or manage the land ‘sustainably,’ what do we hope to achieve? In short – the aim can be summarised in the following:

• Reduce the emission of greenhouse gases

• Reduce the production of waste and use resources efficiently

• Prepare ourselves for climate change impacts such as prolonged drought and extreme weather event

• Contribute to the preservation of the natural environment for the benefit of the broader community, such as preserving and restoring biodiversity, clean waterways and soil conservation.

The question of how to take action is not an easy one for horse owners and equine property managers to answer. All farming and equine properties are complex systems with many competing pressures. Those who have achieved this goal in urban and rural environments have done so through innovation, engagement with the subject, and with thoughtful, well-researched property planning and design.

Managing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change in a productive farm setting means making changes in a number of areas. For horse properties, the key areas for action can be grouped under the following:

• Methane production and manure management

• Soil management to retain carbon, soil structure and increase productivity

• Carbon stocks, vegetation sinks and biodiversity management

• Efficiency in farm operations and reducing dependency on external inputs

Choosing, and maintaining, farm equipment

• Property design to tie all these elements together in an effective, functional system.

These topics will be addressed in further articles over the next six issues in Hoofbeats. We will outline management strategies for horse properties that are achievable, affordable, effective and contribute not only to a property that is taking responsible action, but that is a pleasurable place to work and live for both horse and human.

View the PDF.