Is Big Brother Going to Be Peering into My Muck Pile?

December 2000/January 2001

The bad news is, yes.
But, the good news is most of you won't have anything to worry about.

This article first appeared in August 1999, and has been updated as of November 2000.

Why? Because most of you already have some sort of system in place for handling your manure. You will just have to account for it now under the current regulations. In fact, Maryland has been a leader in the country for farmers of all agricultural products voluntarily implementing nutrient management plans.

If we are already doing it, why do we need more laws?

Politics
These new laws really weren't originally intended to regulate horse farms; they were intended to regulate poultry farms, but all of agriculture got caught up (some might say as an easy scapegoat) in the "Pfiesteria Hysteria" of 1998. That was the year when lawmakers were attempting to pacify citizens outraged from the 1997 outbreaks of pfiesteria, which killed thousands of fish, closed three Chesapeake Bay tributaries, and even proved harmful to humans. The outbreak severely damaged our seafood and tourism industries, and Marylanders were angry and wanted something done. They wanted it fixed. They wanted a law passed.

Scientific research has indicated that the microbe Pfiesteria piscicida can become toxic in nutrient rich waters. Since watersheds where Pfiesteria was present were predominantly near poultry farms, a hue and cry arose to regulate the farmers, and the Governor and the legislature passed the well meaning yet hastily contrived Water Quality Improvement Act of 1998 with the Nutrient Management Requirements, which will impact all agricultural operations.

These regulations were hastily passed. Since then, modifications have been made (to the ease and benefit of horse farms) and, undoubtedly, more modifications will be made in the future.

In the meantime, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is charged with overseeing the implementation of the regulations. This is a blessing for us, as MDA is used to working hand in hand with agricultural producers. It could have been the Department of the Environment, which doesn't have the historically close and productive relationship with the agricultural industry.

Who made up these regs? Were horsemen involved?
In 1992, when Maryland farmers were on the forefront of voluntary nutrient management practices, the "Nutrient Management Advisory Committee" was established to advise MDA. Today, the Committee is comprised of over thirty representatives of various commodity groups and other agricultural and environmental concerns. Although a representative from the horse industry did not serve on the initial committee, in 1999 MDA did appoint Malcolm Commer, Jr., Ph.D., to serve on the committee. Dr. Commer is the livestock economist for the University of Maryland and an equine specialist for Maryland Cooperative Extension Services, is the immediate past president of the Maryland Horse Council, and still serves on the MHC Executive Committee. He is also hands-on in the industry, with his own farm and breeding operation, and is a former cattle ranch manager.

MDA also established a Horse Operation Task Force to study the implementation of these regulations in the horse industry, and to make recommendations for possible modifications to be considered. This task force includes members of the Maryland Horse Council as well as other industry professionals.

But the bottom line is, nothing can be changed without legislation, and in the meantime, certain regulations have been established, and we must comply with them until such time as they are changed.

So, what does Big Brother want to know?
Basically, a nutrient management plan just ensures that you are managing your manure responsibly, in relation to the size of your herd and the size of your property, and most of you are.

But what has that got to do with the nutrients my horse is receiving? I feed the best!
It has nothing to do with the nutrients that your horse is consuming -- it is the nutrients that he is outputting, and how it ultimately affects run-off, streams and ground water.

This is just for big commercial operations, right?
Well, originally the legislation was intended to go after the big guns, the big commercial operations, such as the poultry operations. However, that is not the way it is now defined by the law. According to the law, if you have a gross annual income from your farm of $2,500 or more, you must comply, but, even if you don't derive any income but have eight or more animal units on property that you own, lease, or manage, you must comply.

Well, since I don't derive any income, then I don't need to worry about this, right?
Not necessarily. If you average a certain number of horses per year at your farm, no matter what how many acres you have, you may need to institute a nutrient management program.

But we do have good news: when we first reported on these regulations, you were required to comply if you had four or more horses on your property, but now, due to the efforts of the Advisory Committee, that has been raised to an average of eight horses per year. Essentially, under the archaic definition of animal units, a horse was defined as weighing 2000 pounds, and the regs say if you have 8,000 pounds of livestock, you must comply, therefore, if you had four horses, you had to comply. The Advisory Committee was able to get the definition of a horse unit changed to 1000 pounds, so now 8000 pounds equals 8 animal units equals 8 horses. We know, it is weird, but that is the way it is. But anyway, it also means if you sometimes have four or five, but sometimes have ten or twelve, you average eight a year and will need to comply.

But what if I have minis ? Surely I don't have to comply.
Well, yes you do. Unfortunately, at this time, the law does not distinguish between mini, pony, horse or draft. One equine is one animal unit is 1000 pounds. Yes, that means that the farm with nine Shetlands is subject to the regulations, while the farm with 7 draft horses catches a break. The law isn't perfect, but at least it is more fair, and in the big picture (and the government is usually dealing in "big picture" issues) it balances out.

I have eight ponies on 200 acres of pasture -- surely I don't have to comply?
Well, technically, yes you do. But suffice it to say, your nutrient management plan will probably be really, really short.

So what do I do?
You must have a nutrient management plan prepared by a certified nutrient management consultant. Your County Cooperative Extension Office will have certified consultants who can do a plan at no cost. There are also independent nutrient management consultants, and fertilizer companies such as Southern States often have employees certified.

An analysis of your soil will be conducted and your manure management plan will be evaluated. Of primary concern will be how your manure is stored and the potential runoff to surface and ground water sources, but your pasture management may also be reviewed. Manure management for four horses on three acres will require different conditions than manure management for the same number of horses on 50 acres. (A word of reassurance: there are no minimum acreage requirements for horses in Maryland -- recommendations but not requirements; however, some local and county governments do impose acreage restrictions, but that does not fall under MDA's jurisdiction).

They will also want to know if you spread your manure, when and how, and if you fertilize your pastures in any other way.

Chances are, your nutrient levels will be far below the limits that cause concern. According to Allison Rogers, Equine Outreach Specialist for Montgomery Soil Conservation District, "none of the horse operations we've worked with have come close to the limits imposed by the Water Quality Management Act. Rather, their pastures were undernourished," and consequently not a threat to water sources.

What is it going to cost me?
For most farms already practicing responsible manure and pasture management, not much. A nutrient management advisor from Cooperative Extension Services is free. The cost of an independent advisor seems to be currently ranging around $100 to $200 for smaller farms and farmettes, and $6 to $8 per acre for larger farms. The state does offer a cost-share program if you hire an outside consultant. The University of Maryland charges $6 per soil sample; independent labs may charge more. An independent manure test (to test the nutrient levels) is usually about $50, but according to Allison Rogers, if you send it in with your soil sample to the University of Maryland, MDA will cover the fee.

Beyond that, if you need to implement any other management techniques that involve modifications to your property, you may be eligible for cost share programs. Some of these programs have helped horse farm owners install automatic waterers in their pastures, fence around streams and create bridges, install concrete manure pits when storage options for manure are limited.

How often will I have to do this?
You will simply need to submit an updated plan every three years, unless the size of your operation changes significantly within those three years.

When do I have to start?
You will need to have your plan developed by December 31, 2001 and implemented by December 31, 2002.

What happens if I don't? Will the manure police catch me?
Well, at first you will get a warning, and eventually you might get a penalty of $250. If you can demonstrate that you are working on the plan, but are having a few hiccups getting it implemented, or have encountered unforeseen circumstances, MDA will work with you. However, if, in the words of the regulations, you "willfully violate" or cause any actual harm to human health or the environment, MDA does have the ability to slap you with up to $2,000 worth of fines a year. (Will this scare the multi-million dollar commercial poultry operations, whom this law was originally intended to affect? Probably not, but that is another article.) So, if you get cranky and difficult, MDA may very well determine that you are "willfully violating."

What's in this for me?
Other than the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing your small part to help protect the Chesapeake Bay? That's not enough?

O.k., how about money? Cost share programs that will provide money for capital improvements on your property, such as automatic waterers, that could make your life easier and ultimately increase the value of the farm?

How about tax breaks? For instance, according to Rogers, you can now deduct from your state taxes such things as the entire cost of a new manure spreader (previously, private, non-business farms could not).

What if I don't have eight horses, can I still take advantage of the cost share programs?
In many cases, yes -- call to find out!

How Do I Get Started?
To receive your complete nutrient management information kit, contact

Maryland Department of Agriculture
Nutrient Management Program
50 Harry S. Truman Parkway
Annapolis, MD 21401

410-841-5959 www.mda.state.md.us


Think the Regs Ought To Be Changed?
Well, MDA can't do it. Only the legislature has the power to change the laws. So, if you want to see the regulations changed, you will need to get active with the legislature, either by going it alone or by joining an organization that is active in Annapolis, such as the Maryland Farm Bureau or the Maryland Horse Council.

Maryland Farm Bureau 410-922-3426
Maryland Horse Council 410-489-7826