While many people begin to explore ways to make farming more sustainable and others think of the lifestyle choices they can make to help save the planet, the question is can horse owners be part of the solution instead of adding to the problems?
To introduce this new series of articles, we ask Mariette van den Berg, an equine nutritionist, pasture and permaculture design consultant about equine permaculture, a new movement that aims to integrate the principles of permaculture with other sustainable farming strategies that can be implemented on horse properties, however large or small.
What is permaculture and how is it relevant to horse owners?
“Permaculture is a design system for sustainable living, devised by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s. It’s one of the movements that can help make farming cleaner, less costly, and more resilient and resistant to disasters.
“Although permaculture is best known to be about growing food and being self-reliant, it’s also about how we build, how we can live more sustainably and how we deal with water, energy, soil and all living beings. The permaculture principles can be adapted to any situation, from city to county and, indeed, in our own horse properties.”
What are the main objectives for introducing a permaculture system into equine management?
“The main aim is to begin implementing sustainable or holistic farming practices such as, but not limited to, permaculture is to address the current challenges in conventional farming systems, such as high input costs to maintain pastures using prescription farming – relying on chemical fertilisers, mineral inputs and herbicides to manage weeds.
“When it comes to managing pastures, horse owners typically lack knowledge and are generally overwhelmed by problems, such as overgrazing, weeds or pasture-related health disorders in their horses. This drives owners to lock up their horses and rely on importing feed, such as hay and concentrates. This is not only detrimental to your pocket and the wellbeing of the horses, but it’s also detrimental for the soil. Permaculture is a call to action to work with natural and animal systems, to improve soil heath and create better environments for you and your horses.”
Most permaculture advocates dismiss horses when they talk about livestock systems. How do you integrate equines into permaculture principles and is it possible to find a balance?
“There are many permaculture principles that can be integrated in equine systems and management. In equine permaculture we have similar ethics, such as earth care, people care and fair share, but when setting up equine properties, we also have to include horse care ethics. With horse care, we address human-horse Interactions, which involves evidence-based education to support responsible horse keeping; improving the health, performance and wellbeing of all horses. This includes education about horse behaviour, feeding management, general health, husbandry practices and pasture management/grazing planning.”
For someone with a ‘traditional’ equine management system in place, are there elements of permaculture that can be implemented without starting from scratch that would still prove to be valuable?
“Many permaculture principles and designs can be integrated into existing horse properties, and the three main aspects that can be easily adopted are:
- Soil development and pasture health,
- Hydration and water harvesting, and
- Stacking functions, which simply means that one solution should not have a single function but, rather, multiple applications.
“Nevertheless, permaculture may not provide all the solutions to horse properties. For example, in my consulting, I use many other principles such as Keyline Design, Holistic Grazing Management, Behavioural Educations for Human, Animal, Vegetation and Ecosystem Management (BEHAVE), and I integrate my own research into foraging behaviour and diet selection by horses.
“In my consulting and workshops, I promote the use of vegetation systems that can provide edible fodder for horses and other livestock, which can be planted on swales (contour level banks that improve land hydration).
“You can use cut and carry systems to take branches to your horse paddocks or pastures and this will enrich their environment and, at the same time, offer additional fibre. In cases where horses are sugar sensitive and need to be managed more intensively, you can use this browse fodder (which is typically lower in soluble carbohydrates) in their sacrifice areas and/or designed laneway systems. These are examples of systems that can be easily integrated in existing property layouts.
“I’m looking forward to sharing with Horses and People readers some of the ideas, principles and design elements that can help horse owners improve their horse properties to make them more sustainable and resilient to climate extremes, as well as improving the health and wellbeing of their horses and their land.
When can we expect to see an equine permaculture course being offered? Will it be applicable on a global level given the vast differences in climate, soil and native forage?
“Our aim is to start later this year with a more detailed curriculum (and manual) that integrates equine permaculture for different climates (e.g. arid, tropical, temperate, etc). We hope that, by the end of 2016, we will be offering full PDC courses with an equine focus.
“During 2016, we are also establishing our new research centre, in Armidale, New South Wales, which will be the home of equine permaculture.
I recently completed my PhD project on foraging behaviour and diet selection in horses, and the objective is to continue researching equine grazing behaviour and pasture management. Most of this work will be conducted at the new location and, at the same time, our aim is to set the property up as an example equine permaculture site.
For more information about all our changes and upcoming events, go to www.equinepermaculture.com.
In the next part, we begin to share ideas; outlining the permaculture design principles and sustainable management strategies that can be integrated into your horse property and management system to help improve your land, and benefit the lifestyle and health of horses and people.
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