What you need to know to protect your farm’s water source.
It’s good to know you have an abundant and reliable water source on your property. Most of us who have bought land are well aware of the monetary value water brings. It’s usually reflected in the asking price! If you have horses, a pond or creek on your property seems ideal. After all, horses can sure get thirsty and who doesn’t enjoy a good roll in the creek?
Dream Come True
Everyone would agree that simpler is better. Imagine being able to water your horse by simply buying the right piece of ground. If there’s a pond or creek on a property, that means little to no initial cost for a water source, so why not go for it? The soils, geology, annual precipitation, and your savvy purchasing skills are all your horse will need. There’s no fussing over power, pressure tanks or pumps. No constant moving and filling of water troughs. Never any broken hose bibs, cracked hoses or leaky pipes. You might think of some romantic scene from the movies, as you wander down to the stream to watch the wildlife in all the spare time you’ve saved by having a natural water source on your land.
Unless you own or manage a very large parcel of land with lots of room to roam, you might run into some issues with your surface water sources. A landowner who only has a few usable acres, more than a couple of horses, and a creek running through his property, is actually tasked with some potential problems.
To start, keep in mind that soils and vegetation respond to timing (season) and intensity (pressure from hooves or number of horses). The longer horses are allowed to feed, or even exercise, on a particular grazing area, the more the intensity increases. Most of us want to keep the soil that supports our grass plants in place, and keep the grass plants growing vigorously enough that they wake and thrive each and every year. The ultimate bad day for soils is to overgraze and let large animals “compact” it by camping out year round, especially when it’s wet. In this more challenging scenario, several negative results can arise in short order.
• I’m no veterinarian, but I’m told that horses standing in mud for long periods may not be the best scenario for a number of reasons. Though your vet would probably appreciate the business, none would want to see suffering and/or expense over something that can be avoided.
• In addition, imagine one too many animals putting so much pressure on the field that the grass and other desirable plants just give up. Once the soil loses the ability to support desirable plants, it becomes bare. Bare soil that gets all squished together no longer accepts much water from average rain events. Now that the rain is running off instead of soaking in, it starts to pick up soil particles and carry them away. This also means less water recharging the aquifer. Not good if you or your neighbors depend on a nearby well for your own domestic use. Not only are you losing soil for next year’s grass to grow in, you may be contributing to dirty water further downstream.
• In most regions, there are rules and regulations dealing with water quality. With that being said, know you might be breaking the law if there’s not enough healthy vegetation adjacent to water that runs off your property. It’s so important to maintain healthy vegetation, and actually somewhat challenging to re-establish once gone. Live, healthy plants can capture and utilize a large portion of the nutrients created by grazers and the resulting manure and urine. It keeps in check the bad stuff that could otherwise end up harming wildlife such as fish. A little shade next to the water contributes to the overall “coolness” of the watershed and provides a nesting/ resting spot for all of those brilliant migratory birds that visit from time to time. It holds the bank in place, over the long term. What a bummer to lose a few acres of your pasture during that next high water storm event.
• Once soil becomes compacted, the stuff you want growing starts to struggle. That paves the way for undesirable plants (dare I say weeds?) that thrive in such harsh environments. Not only that, but depending on your latitude and longitude, a variety of these noxious invaders are actually poisonous to horses! Once invasive weeds take root, it’s a challenge to go back to the “gold ol’ days”.
Develop a Sustainable Property
Let’s summarize. If you have surface water source available, cherish and protect it. Landowners with any number of horses confined adjacent to surface water might take a walk and start a mental list of areas that need attention. Did you know that folks are willing to help provide guidance and support for most all of the aforementioned challenges? There are many knowledgeable, non-regulatory entities out there that are more than willing to provide assistance at no charge. Check with your local Conservation District, University Extension Office, or similar Natural Resources Conservation Service where you live. Don’t let bare soil exist!
Don’t get overwhelmed and give up! Get help if needed and come up with a workable plan for the long term. Investigate conservation practices such as “heavy use areas” and “off stream watering” systems such as nose pumps. Proudly and honorably manage a property that sustainably supports healthy horses and healthy land. The hopes and dreams of future horse lovers depend on it!
Paul Showalter is a Natural Resource Conservationist for the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District, Medford, OR. jswcd.org