Best Management Practices for Environmental Systems

Heavy rains throughout April and early May have caused excessive runoff and erosion of fields and paths. Ponding water, heavy runoff, and saturated fields can reveal how water flows on a particular piece of land--valuable information that illustrates how water systems and drainage actually work, field-by-field. This evidence can help owners take the necessary steps after heavy rains to prevent further soil loss, erosion, forage loss, pasture damage, and waterway contamination.

"While the ground is wet, take a hard look at feeding sites, gate openings, and other heavy use areas, fence rows, compost piles, and waste disposal/dispersal to ensure that best management practices are working on your farm," said Stephen Higgins, PhD, director of environmental compliance for the Agricultural Experiment Station, Bioenvironmental Engineering, at the University of Kentucky (UK).

To strengthen a farm's environmental systems, Higgins says horse farm managers should consider the following:

Water Quality Plan This plan is a tool used by farm owners to identify and implement best management practices on their land. "Any farm of 10 acres or more needs a Kentucky ag water quality plan, because it became law in 1994," said Amanda Abnee Gumbert, extension water quality liaison, UK Cooperative Extension Service. "Answering simple yes and no questions will generate a list of best management practices to follow to protect water quality. A self-certification sheet should be kept on file at the local conservation district office as proof that a plan exists. Farmers do not need to turn in their plans, but should keep them as working documents."

In Kentucky a fine of $25,000 per offense, per day can be levied for water pollution. A tool that assists with the self-certification process is available at

Proper Muck Management Muck, a combination of horse manure, urine, and bedding (usually shavings or straw), should not be used as fill for ditches, sinkholes, or gullies, which could convey dirty water into waterways.

"Get rid of muck by giving it away to neighbors or garden clubs, or by composting it properly to create a humus that can be spread back on pastures," Higgins said.

Additional nitrogen might be necessary to create enough heat to properly break down muck, which can have a high carbon content depending on its removal method and the type of bedding used. Higgins said managers can add high-nitrogen chicken and/or cattle manure to compost to balance the carbon-nitrogen ratio.

High Traffic Areas Protect high use areas with specially built traffic pads designed to reduce soil compaction, erosion, and mud. Many farms use a form of stone (gravel) and geotextile fabric, but horse operations often use a combination of rock and rock dust or "crusher fines." Feed horses in a drylot adjacent to multiple paddocks to avoid tearing up pastures, or feed in multiple areas, changing the location frequently so soil does not erode or become compacted by constant use.

Rotational Grazing Fence large pastures into smaller areas to create more paddocks. Then rotate horses through these paddocks, allowing unused fields time for regrowth. Design paddocks to exclude horses from natural drainage, rather than simply fencing off neat square areas. Remove horses when grass is grazed down to three inches to prevent overgrazing, which promotes the establishment of weeds and undesirable vegetation.

Feeding Feed horses using movable structures and above-ground hay racks.

"Elevate hay and grain feeders and move them occasionally to reduce wear and tear around them," Higgins recommended. "Typically, 50% of hay is wasted when it is fed on the ground, so this is a cost-savings practice. Take soil samples in pastures and in feed areas to manage nutrient levels."

Keep Clean Water "Clean" Drain roof water and clean headwaters away from buildings to keep them from becoming contaminated with sediment, manure, and pathogens. Collect roof water in rain barrels for secondary use, or channel water away from building foundations into nonsensitive grassy areas.

Landscaping Plant trees that have generous canopies to create shade. Plant windbreaks (such as trees, shrubs, etc. that will block the wind) on a mound (e.g., a hill or a natural or artificial rise of land) to protect horses from winter winds.

Enhance Riparian Areas Riparian areas are thin strips of grassy, weedy, non-crop land that border creeks, streams, and rivers and provide a transition between field or crop and waterway. Enhance riparian sections by using vegetation to control erosion. The best practice is to create "wild and woolly" areas--untamed and natural spaces--to filter runoff before it hits surface water. Because of their proximity to water, riparian areas slow run-off, help prevent contamination, and support plant and animal diversity.

Karin Pekarchik is an editorial officer in UK's Agricultural Communications Services.

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