Horse farms play big role in Howard agriculture


January 23, 2003|By Diane Mikulis | Diane Mikulis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A FULLTIME FARMER for most of his life, Howie Feaga made the switch from dairy farming to horse farming four years ago. Now he has a list of people waiting to board their horses in one of his 24 stalls should an opening arise.

Feaga has a few horses of his own, but most of the horses at his Merry Acres farm in Glenelg are owned by people who live in Columbia, Silver Spring, Eldersburg and Anne Arundel County.

"They're mostly people who do a little showing and trail riding," he said. "We have a nice, big, sand-based ring, and we also have access to trails."

Feaga also grows hay and other crops, and keeps a few beef cattle.

"We provide our horses with our own hay," he said. "That's one of our advantages." He sells hay to other horse farms.

Feaga owns 100 acres and rents 200 more, using about a quarter of that for the horses. One of his two barns has six stalls, and the other has 18. He employs a barn manager and several area youngsters who after school and on weekends help with the hay and caring for the horses.

Economic considerations were key to Feaga's decision to switch to horse farming.

"The dairy industry was not doing well," he said. "Being a small operation, we just couldn't compete."

The horse barns are a little colder, and the work is a bit more physical, but Feaga said the change has been good for the farm.

Feaga is one of the nearly 2,300 people involved with horse farming in Howard County, not including hired labor.

That is according to the 2002 Maryland Equine Census conducted for the Maryland Horse Industry Board. The census also revealed that Howard has more horses per acre than any other county in Maryland. Many of the horse farms are scattered around the western part of the county.

At Chanceland Farm in Woodbine, Bob Manfuso and Katy Voss run a 200-acre thoroughbred breeding and training farm. Both have been around horses most of their lives; they settled in Howard County in 1990 to build the operation. He is in charge of the breeding operation, and she handles the training.

Because the land they found off Route 144 was in the county's land-preservation program, it suited their purposes perfectly.

"One of the things about land preservation is to find a use for it," Manfuso said.

Now with a 29-stall breeding barn, a 36-stall training barn, a 5/8-mile training track, five miles of fencing around the pastures and a dozen employees, Manfuso and Voss have a successful business. They have built homes on the property for two of their full-time employees.

"We're commercial breeders; the crops are our babies," Manfuso said. "We sell the crop. It could be 12 or 13 horses."

But he's careful to add that they don't just breed horses. "The training is how we deliver our product," he said.

Manfuso and Voss try to sell the thoroughbreds as young as possible but, depending on the market, they might end up raising some of the horses themselves. Their horses race at Laurel Park, Pimlico and other mid-Atlantic region tracks. Some go to Kentucky.

They also work with horses that have been injured or had surgery, providing physical therapy. The horses can use one of the automatic walkers - large, circular devices in a round pen with gated sections for horses to walk in - or they can swim in a pond that is equipped with horse gates. The pond is used for exercising horses that carry a little extra weight. "It takes the belly off," Manfuso said.

Horse farming isn't limited to those who do it full time. Jim Hanson and his wife, Liz Lavine, of Glenwood keep their own horses and board some for others on their 20-acre farm. Both work full time at other jobs and handle the farm chores before heading out each morning.

Hanson is an economist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension on the university's College Park campus. One of his duties, in addition to teaching, is working with the agricultural community in Howard County.

Hanson said about a third of the farmers in Howard County farm full time. The rest make their livings in other ways.

"There are a few very large [horse] farms, but most are small farms," he said. "The limiting factor is how much land you have. You can only put so many horses on it."

Hanson said 1 1/2 to 2 acres per horse is about right for proper pasture management. "You want the horse to be able to graze as much as possible, and you don't want to overuse the land," he said. "We have to intensively manage it."

Horses on Hanson's farm rotate through eight pastures from April through November. During the winter, they use a "sacrifice lot," he said, explaining that the winter pasture becomes depleted and then unusable until it can be regrown.

Hanson and Lavine also purchase horses for resale, training them while they have them. They don't make a fortune off the horses, but they make enough to keep the business going profitably.

"We enjoy it," he said. "It's a lot of hard work. At our scale, you can't quit your day job. There are days when it's too hot, too cold, too wet, but it's nice to be away from the office. It's a quality-of-life deal."

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