Pasture Damage

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Credit: Thinkstock Many barn owners make due with some areas of their paddocks or fields that are in disrepair.

Credit: Thinkstock Many barn owners make due with some areas of their paddocks or fields that are in disrepair.

Since the last time I checked, they weren’t making any more land, so it behooves stable operators to take the best care of the land they have. Or, if you’ve moved onto land that has had improper care in the past, you may need to make some repairs before you can get the full enjoyment and efficiency out of your little slice of heaven.

Many barn owners make due with some areas that are in disrepair. Portions of the “back 40” that they haven’t gotten to yet, paddocks that they stop using during heavy rainfall, or fields that they call “the diet pen” because of its lack of grass growth. Rarely is the area intentionally damaged or neglected, rather the thief of time or resources often limits the barn owner’s ability to keep up.

HOW DID IT GET TO THIS?

How does land become damaged? In some cases the damage is quick: fuel spills, manure pile runoff and contamination of water sources, fertilizer or herbicide spills, inappropriate turnout on soggy days leading to pockmarked landscapes in less than 24 hours.

In most cases, the damage takes a while to be noticed. Long term neglect of field and pasture management can lead to depleted mineral content and patchy pastures as grass cannot grow to its fullest; long-term manure pile runoff into pasture land due to poor location or set up; inappropriate fertilizer or herbicide applications that damage or burn grass; equipment storage issues that result in contamination of land through fuel, rust or chemical runoff; poor pasture set up that leads to erosion; overuse of fields or paddocks; improper equipment use.

You’ve probably already guessed some of the signs of damaged land:

  • Bald or discolored patches of land
  • Entrenched wear patterns
  • Shrinking riparian areas
  • Chronic mud pits
  • Fields with consistent lack of grass growth

There are some others that often go unnoticed or accepted as just “part of farm life”:

  • Binder twine buried in the land
  • High garbage or weed content in baled hay
  • Dust
  • Flood spots during high rainfall

If you can see these, you can be sure that your clients can, too.

It is critical that you keep a handle on damaged land and repair it as quickly as possible (while, obviously, keeping damage from occurring in the first place). Outside of the ecological reasons of sustainability and health, your land serves as a testimony to potential clients. Many horse owners are wise to the signs of ecological distress on land and when they see bare patches or stained earth and mud pits, they may question your long-term business sustainability.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?

The ideal option is to hire an expert to come and assess your land. There are professionals who specialize in designing land for horse properties based on specific uses. Many companies use teams of building architects, civil engineers, master planners and landscape architects to assess your property holistically. It’s not the cheapest option, but it depends on how valuable your time is to you—repairing land can be costly in either money or time.

If you feel confident that you can undertake this yourself, here is a game plan:

1) Call your extension office and arrange a farm visit. You can have your soil and water tested at a low cost and the extension officer can recommend courses of action for pastures that require applications of minerals, seeding, weed management, etc., to get your land back into top producing form.

2) Map your land or get an aerial photograph taken. It’s amazing how many land patterns you can see from an aerial perspective that you can’t see from ground level.

3) Determine areas that will need to be re-graded and/or fenced off. Take a close look at riparian areas (about 10 feet around aboveground water) to see if they may need to be fenced off or protected during re-grading. Horses should be kept away from riparian areas as their hooves can damage the root systems of the plant life in the area. While watering your horses from a stream may seem natural, an aboveground waterer will cause less damage to your water supply in the long term.

4) If re-grading is required, consider using a dirt-glue system (www.dirtglue.com) which helps stabilize soil, roads and frequently used paths. It can also help prevent wind and water erosion if used correctly.

5) Pay close attention to the slope of your land and create runoff routes from your paddocks and pastures using French drains. If the runoff is coming from your roof, consider either catching the water and re-using (arena watering) or creating a drain to run the water underground to pastures that need water and won’t be used during rainfalls, paying close attention to where that water will end up. It’s best to disperse in a nearly flat area that will not flood, pool or drain away into an area that will or into above ground water.

6) Change turnout habits so that you avoid high traffic areas after precipitation.

7) A paddock or pasture re-design may be required. Move gates to areas that are less likely to result in mud and pockmarked land. Feed in different areas so that the land is less likely to incur long term root damage to the grass from too many footfalls.

In the case of fuel, biological (manure) or chemical contamination, the fix can be a lot more difficult. The first thing to do is to prevent it from happening again. Manure piles need to be on cement pads, sheltered from the weather (a roof and half walls can be sufficient) so that runoff cannot occur. Fuel also need to be on cement pads, often with connected cement walls so that any spills are immediately contained.

It may require removal of soil to a certain depth, depending on how chronic the contamination has been (just one or two spills in a year versus long term disposal of chemicals in a specific area). One of the worst chemical contaminations occurs through the use of burn barrels that allow everything from burned plastics and twine and paper and all odds and ends to be burned and slowly seep into the ground.

Whatever the cause, repairing damaged land requires time and patience. But the pay off of a lush green landscape will thrill both horses and humans.