On Becoming A “Greener” Horsekeeper

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By Amanda Renouard

In February of 2020, France went into ‘confinement,’ or you may understand it as ‘lockdown.’  My family and I duly followed the rules and congratulated ourselves on our decision 13 years previous to buy a farm in rural Deux Sevres, France, where we live in splendid isolation with our horses at Haras Du Ritz.

Joining us on this journey and along the way has been a growing menagerie of equine friends.  We breed dressage horses and, in 2020, we had four foals due in the April.  Depending on the sales, we can have up to 25 horses on the farm and for over 10 years we had used big bale haylage as our main energy and fibre source for our brood mares, youngstock and the five or six horses in training and preparation for competition.

Lockdown and the Pile of Plastic

 But the end of February 2020 got me thinking.  We were confined to our property and our usual weekly visit to the ‘dechetterie’ (waste disposal site) with all the plastic wrapping that comes from feeding haylage was getting out of control.

We have a high-sided trailer that goes on the back of the tractor or pick-up and it was full of plastic.  Splendid isolation was and is wonderful, but what in my own small way was I doing to the planet?

Lent arrived and although I am not particularly pious, I always give up something for lent. As a child it was sweets. As an adult, I have given up wine, crisps, alcohol and the least satisfactory — I once gave up coffee. That was a bad one.

In 2020 I decided to give up plastic.

Making Hay vs Buying Haylage

 In our bid to be the modern day ‘Good Lifers,’ when we first arrived at our property in 2008 we made hay and quickly learnt that poor grass is not miraculously made into wonderful delicious hay.  Horses ate some and left the rest.

So when we started purchasing haylage and realised

  1. We could store it outside.
  2. The horses ate all of it.
  3. Having a very small son shooting bows and arrows into the plastic and piercing it was extremely problematic and expensive.
  4. The plastic wrapping was never ending.

My 2020 Lent quest meant I refused to buy any fresh food wrapped in plastic.  I stopped using plastic pods for the dishwasher and washing machine and went back to using powder, selecting brands that sold their goods in cardboard.

I started using bars of soap for washing rather than fancy liquid soap packaged in plastic and I can promise you washing horses’ tails with bars of soap is challenging to say the least. The most annoying item served in plastic: have you found horse supplements that are not sold in plastic?

Plastic Out To Pasture

 So in 2020 we stopped buying plastic packaged haylage and went back to growing our own hay.  That 2020/21 winter was tough.  Some horses were happy on the homegrown hay that I admit was much better due to 10-plus years of grass land management by us.

But we still had some that were not tolerant to the dust and tiny fractures of grass that float about as you open a big bale.  A livery arrived with the Haygain HG 600 Hay Steamer machine and I realised this was a game changer.

I quickly started to do my research.  Not only did the science benefits start to stack up, I appreciated how much less mess and, therefore, less labour was involved when using a steamer rather than soaking hay.  Added to which my ‘green’ quest felt justified as I read up on the statistics:

Soaking hay uses between 60 -100 litre of water, Haygain uses 4.5 litres of water, and a steam cycle takes 60 minutes, and the kilowatt of the boiler are similar to the kilowatt consumption required by the boiler per steam cycle. E.g., HG PB boiler with 2.3 kW needs 2.3 kW per hour.  (I am still consulting with solar panel companies to go off grid)

Water Wise

 Soaking hay means lots of water, stinking water, that you throw away after every soak. That water can contain more contaminants and filth than raw sewage.  It basically means that soaking hay can be very hard on the environment.

It was hard on my hands, hard on my clothes, and the horses still coughed and did not rush to eat their forage in the mornings.

Steaming hay means up to 99% of mould dust and other allergens are removed. Steaming hay reduces the risk of colic. Steaming hay also increases moisture content by up to three times, which supports digestive health, and we all know a healthy gut is a healthy horse.

The increase in moisture was a massive boost, I write this in January 2023. It’s threatening snow and the wind chill is enough to make me hibernate. But our glorious French summers since arriving in 2008 are get hotter and drier. The grass burns off and I am always paranoid about the horses getting dehydrated or having compaction issues.  I start feeding sloppy mashed feeds so I love the fact the steamed hay gives the horses something moist to munch on.

Adding More Steam…

 December 2021, I purchased the HG 2000. It is the biggest steamer Haygain makes and I use it generally two or three times a day.  I did consider where to put it and opted for a position in a traditional stone-walled barn where we keep the stocks and have loose housing for two brood mares.

This option meant it was never going to be exposed to freezing temperatures. It was near both tap water and the water we collect off the rooves of our barns and houses.  A green fact: In heavy rain we can collect 1000 litres of water in an hour from one roof.

My routine is to fill the chest with nets at night, with a timing system due to go off at 6 a.m, when electricity is cheaper. I then refill the chest at about 7:30 a.m. so I have enough hay for breakfast and lunch.  The chest is then used again at 4 pm for evening boxes.

Since the lockdown I have reduced the number of horses I have so there are three in work and four that are out during the day and in at night.

The biggest impact the Haygain Steamer has made has, of course, been respiratory health, but I have also reduced the amount of hard feed I use and, anecdotally, I have ceased to use stomach ulcer supplements on a ‘gastro’ susceptible horse.

We had one livery arrive in September with three different supplements for pulmonary health.  He arrived with notes to say he will have ‘snot’ outside his door in the mornings and he always coughs. Four months later I am please to say he is no longer costing his owner additional expense on supplements (served in plastic tubs), and he has never looked better.

Greener Life

 My quest for a plastic free and green life will be a work in progress.  We will continue to make our own hay but understand that steaming bad hay will still be bad hay so in those ‘bad years’ I am happy to forgo the romance of creating hay and reducing equine ‘food miles’ in exchange for the buying in and reaping the benefits of good quality hay that is steamed for hydration and digestion.  The reduction of hard feed and supplements has a meant we spend less and use less plastic.

Haygain Horse Health Library Update
PR: Kim F Miller

Photos available on request