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Farm Management
First Posted Mar 29, 2009
Jul 22, 2010

Chesapeake Bay-Friendly Horse Farm Project(PWSWCD)

Public and Private Partnerships for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay: Model Horse Farm is under construction!

Project Background:

More than 20 partners are assisting with the Chesapeake Bay-Friendly Horse Farm Project. The project proposal was developed by the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District (PWSWCD) and submitted to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation with a request for approximately $125,000 in funding. An equal amount is being contributed by PWSWCD and its' partners in direct funding, staff and volunteer time, products, and services.

The goal of the Horse Farm Project is to address common environmental issues found on horse farms that contain waterways, wetlands, or soils that may leach pollutants into ground water. Water pollution from horse farms can commonly come from the mismanagement of mud, manure and pastures. The project seeks to identify and utilize both tested and innovative management techniques that effectively decrease water pollution. An important goal of the project is to find solutions that not only work well but are also cost-effective. Horse farms in our area, and many parts of Virginia, are not eligible for the same financial incentives, for conservation-oriented improvements, that are available for production agriculture. The PWSWCD seeks to find both innovative and common sense solutions and then to motivate horse farms to make positive changes to their land management without relying upon the government for financial assistance.

Horse farms in Prince William County are typically small in size often just five to ten acre properties with only a portion of that dedicated to horse keeping. If allowed 24-hour access to pastures, horses will naturally graze 18 hours each day. Too many horses on too few acres can quickly denude green meadows. A high stocking rate, and its affect on the land, can threaten the health of the horses and the environment and create aesthetics that strain relationships with neighbors.

In a rainstorm exposed soil, horse manure, fertilizers, and pesticides from mismanaged pastures can wash across the land, downhill, and into our waterways. All the local streams eventually lead to the Potomac River and downstream the Chesapeake Bay. Soil sediment and excess nutrients from fertilizers and animal manure harm the Chesapeake Bay. Sediment can make the water cloudy, appearing like chocolate milk rather than clear. The sediment prevents sunlight from reaching underwater grasses and can also clog fish gills. Excess nutrients over-feed algae causing algal blooms. When the algae naturally die back, the decomposition process steals oxygen away from fish and other living organisms in the water, suffocating them.

Horse farms can use basic principals called Best Management Practices (BMPs) so that they don't hurt the environment. Those BMPs will be installed and demonstrated by making improvements to a local horse farm that is currently in poor condition and may be a source of pollution. Planned improvements to this soon to be model horse farm include the installation of fencing to exclude the horses from a 25 foot buffer/filter area alongside the stream, waterlines and troughs to provide an alternate source of drinking water for the horses, pasture seeding and renovation to discourage weed growth, interior fencing to allow for rotational grazing, manure storage that allows for properly timed application or removal for off-farm use, and the installation of confinement paddocks for non-pasture turnout.

Bluestone gravel dust will be used to create the confinement paddocks also known by the technical term "sacrifice area." A sacrifice area is one area of the pasture system on which ground cover or grass is sacrificed in order to keep the rest of the pastures healthy and green. One of multiple pastures may be grazed when grasses are at least 4 inches tall and the ground is dry. Rotational grazing allows non-grazed pastures time to rest and regrow. During wet weather, periods of drought, the winter months, or any time all the pastures need to rest, the horses are moved, or rotated, into the sacrifice area.

A convenient location for the sacrifice area(s) is often right next to the barn. In the area adjacent to the barn, organic "muck" from manure, uneaten hay, or excess stall bedding can typically build up over time. The organic material acts as a sponge and holds water after a rain, often for an extended period of time. The wet area is slippery for the horses and the owners working in the paddock. Horses kept in muddy conditions can develop fungal and bacterial infections on their skin and in their feet. They can also slip, fall, or have their horseshoes pulled off by the suction, damaging their hooves. During the construction process the sacrifice area is prepared by first removing any organic material from the area.

On the model farm, after the muck is removed from the paddock it will be resurfaced with a few inches of bluestone dust gravel. The gravel dust becomes a clean, safe, all-weather footing. The horses can be confined as needed, especially in wet weather when their hooves would tear and damage the pasture grasses. The horse owner must regularly remove any new manure or other organic material from the paddock to keep it mud and muck-free.

Sacrifice areas are critical for proper land management on small acreage horse farms. Visually the improvement to the farm aesthetics is very positive and when installed as part of a rotational grazing system it becomes very chore-efficient for the caregiver. The PWSWCD believes that if every horse farm installed, and properly utilized, a sacrifice area, the benefits to the environment would be substantial. Sacrifice areas allow horse owners to keep pastures green. Allowing pastures to grow tall, healthy grasses with deep root systems helps slow the downhill travel of rainwater and allows rainwater to soak into the ground rather than run off, potentially carrying pollutants. The grasses also form a dense sod that resists erosion.

The horse farm selected to participate in the project is on a highly visible corner in Gainesville, VA at the intersection of Catharpin Road and Route 234/Sudley Road. The farm is privately owned. Construction to "remodel" Oakwood Farm will begin in March. After improvements have been completed the farm will be used for education, demonstration, and additional research for 10 years. The owner, Edith Kennedy, agrees to maintain the new practices and utilize the prescribed management techniques. The owner is also asked to share feedback with the PWSWCD and maintaining ongoing communication with their conservationists. The farm will not be open to the public unless arrangements have been made through the PWSWCD. To learn more about the project or to schedule a tour, please contact Kate Norris, District Manager with PWSWCD at (703) 594-3621.

Notes from the field By Kate Norris Prince William Soil & Water Conservation District

Construction begins:

For pictures click: Pictures of Project

Day 1

The week of March 23rd we broke ground on the project at last! On the morning of March 24th after months and month and months of careful planning and preparations the dirt began to fly. As I arrived on-site our general contractor Ron Fowler of B&R Contracting, and team, were working on multiple areas of the farm. The farm was a flurry of activity. I think that I speak for not only myself but also Beata Coss, Nicole Ethier, Pete Shiner, and Robin Lancaster (our core grant team comprised of staff and farm operator cooperators) when I say I was initially a bit overwhelmed at the task of making sure everything was being installed to our plan. We would soon learn that the experience and professionalism of the construction team would make our oversight duties almost stress-free.

Chip Pennington and Mathew Wilson were already building the fence 25 feet from the edge of the stream that will become the new boundary for the horses in the streamside pasture. The buffer area between the horses and the stream will grow and function as a natural "speed bump" and filter, slowing and cleaning the rain water before it can reach the stream.

The fence type selected for this area was an electrified braid by Gallagher fencing. The 2 strands of electric fencing are set on 5"x7' pressure treated, round, wooden posts that have a flatted surface on the face of the post. A top wooden board was included, at the property owner's request, for increased visibility. Unable to find the equipment to drive the posts, we added concrete to each post hole for long-term stability. A small, light weight, 4 foot gate was installed alongside a walk-thru to accommodate people traffic in and out of the buffer. We designed strategically placed walk-thru's throughout the farm to increase chore-efficiency.

The wooden posts, boards, and all gates were purchased from the CFC Farm and Home Center (CFC) in Marshall, VA. Mario Oderda, Assistant Manager worked with us to make the final selection on the products we purchased for all our permanent fencing needs. Mario also took the time to share his expertise, explaining for instance the difference in costs and durability of different gates. We selected heavy duty 14 foot tubular steel gates for several applications because they will allow for easy access of large trucks for gravel, fertilizer, and hay. We selected a few 8 foot gates of standard quality and weight to use to access the future manure storage facilities that will be adjacent to the sacrifice areas. As with many of the products selected for use on the farm, we will be able to show visitors different options so that they can judge when a lower cost product functions as well as a more expensive option and when it's better to spend a bit more for the higher quality.

Meanwhile Rusty Morgan (a horse owner himself) was busy excavating the deep layers of organic "muck" adjacent to the back of the barn. His task was to remove enough of the organic material so that our bluestone dust would have a solid base and not disappear into the soil. The organic layers were deeper than we anticipated and we watched as Rusty continued to remove soil as needed, up to a foot deep in places! A by-product of the excavation was the growing pile of super topsoil being stockpiled in the nearby pasture. Nicole and Robin worked together to contact Premier Landscaping, just down the road, to see if they would take the topsoil away since we quickly determined that spreading the amount generated, as originally planned, would totally suffocate the grasses in the pasture. Premier Landscaping was presented with a topsoil sample via a visit from Nicole and soon arrived to begin collecting on their windfall.

As the construction settled into an easy rhythm we regrouped for the final discussion on the installation of gutters on the barn, where we wanted to outlet the roof water runoff, and if it was feasible to use a rain barrel for demonstration purposes on one corner of the barn. We concluded that our best option was to direct all the roof water runoff from the barn to the adjacent hayfield and to forego the rain barrel since calculations showed it would fill and overflow almost instantly in any rainstorm. We reluctantly agreed that a 50-gallon rain barrel, even if we had it overflow initially into another 50-gallon rain barrel, just wasn't going to be cost-effective because we'd still have to deal with the expense of managing overflow. Commonsense prevailed and the rain barrel demo was abandoned, at least for now.

Nicole filled me in on the early morning stream assessment I had missed. Zack Roehr, aquatic ecologist with Virginia Waters and Wetlands, another grant partner stopped by to take some additional water samples before construction. The stream assessment will evaluate the condition of the stream before the improvements and again after the completion of the project.

Day one concluded with an almost finished stream buffer fence line, one sacrifice area paddock successfully excavated to a suitable base layer and a plan of attack for the gutters. We were a bit cold, some were sunburned, but all were feeling the excitement of our progress.

Day 2

As I entered the front gate of the farm at about 7:45 a.m. the next morning I was greeted by sub-contractors from RDB Trucking with our first two loads of gravel, donated by Luck Stone Corporation. The drivers Norman Bush and "Sunshine" would continue to bring loads of gravel throughout the day, 24 loads in total, to surface the back paddock. Even though our drivers were excellent, we witnessed firsthand the importance of having gates of adequate width. Fourteen feet wide is what we recommend and have planned for in our improvements.

Rusty worked all day to keep up with the delivery of gravel, each truck brought a load about every 40 minutes, spreading and smoothing the gravel to create our mud-free paddock.

Inspired by our progress the Kennedy family began making some of their own improvements to the farm. Two old, dilapidated sheds were torn down and moved into a roll off dumpster. The buildings were once functional outbuildings on the property that was a grand plantation. The house, which unfortunately burned in the 1980's, was built in the 1700s. Edith and her family found time to share stories about the grand size of the original house that contained 21 rooms. They promised to show us pictures.

We re-measured the length of the barn and soon Seamless Gutter Supply arrived and formed and cut our gutters to a custom length right on-site. The process was fascinating. The metal was formed much like you might make a giant noodle or tube of pasta.

The fencing crew returned to install the insulators for the strands of braid on our streamside fencing. I caught them before they began to mount the first insulator in place. We raised the height of each strand a few inches to allow for ease of mowing underneath the fence row in the future. A higher bottom strand also means more time can elapse between mowing the fence line since the grasses will have to get taller before they reach and ground out the electric braid. The electric fencing components on the buffer and soon to be installed interior fencing were provided at significant discount from CFC Farm and Home Center in Warrenton, VA through another partnership.

CFC Warrenton's Manager, Roy Lambert, had been extremely helpful the week before when we went to purchase all the accessories for the Gallagher electric fencing. We also had the opportunity to meet other members of the CFC team in Warrenton including Nicky Shaffer who had helped me with numerous pricing inquiries over the recent weeks and Darlene Shaffer, Retail Department Manager, who Nicole would coordinate with on the delivery of additional electric fencing supplies we ordered.

I made a trip back to CFC in Marshall to pick up an additional 25 fence posts due to a miscalculation on our part. Mario helped me exchange a gate and then his employees in the warehouse loaded my truck with the posts. I highly recommended double and triple checking your order of heavy supplies like the posts, on behalf of my truck that had to work extra hard to carry the load back to the farm.

Day two concluded with the completion of the back sacrifice area paddock and the streamside fencing sans electricity. The two geldings who call the back acreage home were turned out and we watched them explore all the changes in their new mud less turnout. We wondered if the mares up front were jealous as they waited for their remodel.

Rain was predicted for the next day or so meaning we'd be returning to the office to catch up on our other responsibilities and to look forward to our next day of construction.

Farm Management