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February 2, 2010

Farm Design Part Five: A Field Of Dreams Requires Careful Planning

Pastures must be safe for horses and continually provide nutritional benefits over years of use. Photo courtesy of Hayward Designs.

Check back every Wednesday through Feb. 24 for our continuing series on Farm Design, sponsored by VirginiaCountryProperties.com.

Most horses will spend at least some part of their lives in a field, so as a farm owner it’s essential to have a plan when it comes to designing your pastures. Not only do they need to be safe for the horses, but they also need to continually provide nutritional benefits over years of use.

Layout And Design

Choosing the layout of your fields should occur at the beginning of the farm design process when you are creating your master plan. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, the average adult horse will consume about 1-2 percent of their body weight per day in the form of pasture forage. Depending on the quality of your fields, the general rule is one horse per 1-2 acres. Acreage needs will increase with poorer quality land.

“It’s important to have enough pasture to support all the horses on your property,” said Lachlan Oldaker of GH2 Gralla Equestrian Architects.  “When you have a large amount of horses, we want to look at how to minimize the steps required of turning horses out and have good access everywhere with efficient lane and gate systems.”

Lorri Hayward of Hayward designs recommended incorporating smaller paddocks near the barn into the farm design.

“The smaller the paddock, the less likely you are going to grow grass,” said Hayward. “If it’s small, I recommend pulling up the top soil and compacting it down, placing a plastic or rubber grid, then backfilling it with screenings. You can put down the soil on top and re-seed. With the grid, the horses will never tear up the footing.”

If your budget doesn’t allow for installing products like Invisible Structure (which is also being incorporated into ‘green’ parking lots) in your fields, Hayward recommended at least considering them in gate openings, around automatic waterers and around run-in sheds.

“Any places your horses might hang out and linger or where you can’t grow grass is a perfect application for this system,” said Hayward. “You’re maintaining your property by keeping it from becoming a muddy, nasty mess.”

Facts About Fencing

“The safest fence for a horse is one they can see, and they won’t go near,” said Hayward. “Horses are smart and savvy, but when they’re scared all sensibility goes out the door.”

While fencing materials can vary greatly, the most important thing to remember is that it is installed safely and is made of materials that will cause the least harm.

“The ideal scenario is some sort of plank and highly visible fence product,” said Hayward. “To me, you can’t beat four-board fencing. Mares and foals are the biggest issue with fencing choices, and with four-board fencing, there’s something down at the lowest level. They can’t roll underneath the fence.”

There are many appropriate materials for fencing. A few to consider include:

  • Wood – Wooden fencing is the most traditional material for fencing. It’s relatively inexpensive and attractive. It does require maintenance to keep it looking nice, including regular painting, but boards are easily replaced if damaged. One benefit of wood is that if horses do run through it, it will break, but it does splinter. Many horse owners will run a strand of hot wire across the top rail to keep horses from chewing on the wood or pushing on it.
  • Vinyl or PVC – Plastic fencing such as vinyl or PVC improves the overall look of your farm very quickly, but at a cost. Maintenance is almost non-existent—there’s no painting required, and horses generally won’t chew on it. However, the rails can pop out if horses lean on it. These types of fencing do break if a horse runs into it and doesn’t usually splinter like wood. Hot wire is also recommended for this fencing for the same reason as wood.
  • Electric – While electric (wire, tape, braid, etc.) fencing is best used as an accompaniment to more sturdy fencing, it can be used as your primary fencing. Hot wire is inexpensive and simple to install, but it can be dangerous because it isn’t highly visible. If you employ electric fencing, tie some kind of colored flag to the wire so the horses can see it from a distance or find a way to make the fence highly visible. It’s essential to keep fence lines clear when using electric fencing, as plants, branches, bushes, etc. can short out the fence.
  • Field Fencing (Wire Mesh Fence) – Normally used for livestock, field fencing can be used for horses in conjunction with post and rail fencing and/or electric fencing. Care should be taken that openings in the fencing are small enough to keep hooves out. This fencing method is also inexpensive compared to wood, vinyl or PVC.

Almost any type of material can be used for fencing, including pipe, rubber belts, buck and rail, chain link, stonewalls and more. The important thing is to ensure that whatever fencing material you chose is safe and installed correctly.

While there are better fencing options than others, no fencing is accident-proof. Owners should walk their fences regularly and look for weak spots, broken wires, loose nails or any other areas of concern. Your fences are not only protecting your horses, but they are also an investment. They are only as safe as you make them.

Keeping Fields Green

“It’s important to check your soils and neutralize your soils on a regular basis,” said Debra Corr of Exclusively Equine Properties. “Keep a balance in the soil, or you will have no grass.”

Fertilizing is one of the easiest ways to keep your fields green year after year, and it’s a method that has been used for hundreds of years. But it’s not as simple as throwing manure straight from the stall into the field.

“Never spread raw manure,” said Corr. “If you bring your manure wagon and spread immediately, you’re spreading fly eggs, worm eggs and killing your pastures. Manure has to be properly composted. If you let the manure get to 160 degrees, you will cook out the eggs and keep the good bacteria sound. It helps balance your soil.”

Composting your manure has additional benefits, including a reduction in flies, parasites and pathogens. It also reduces odors and will reduce your bulk waste by up to 50 percent. (Composting reduces bulk.) The process also kills weed seeds.

In the fields, using composted manure will improve the aeration and water retention of your soil, supply nutrients, support essential soil bacteria, feed earthworms and gradually change the pH levels of the soil. Compost doles out nutrients slowly, and the benefits of adding compost will often last more than one season.

Composting Tips

  • Pile Size – To achieve the right composting temperatures, a pile must be at least 3 feet high. For best heating, try for a 5-7 square foot pile rising to 3-4 feet.
  • Airflow – Keeping air in the pile is essential to prevent odor, achieve high temperatures and complete the process in a short time. Turning the pile at regular intervals will speed up the decomposition process. Don’t have a tractor? Insert a couple of 5-foot PVC pipes into the center of the pile like chimneys and drill some holes (1/2 inch diameter, every 6 inches) into the pipes at the bottom to increase airflow.
  • Temperature – Your compost pile should heat up to 110-160 degrees in order to kill weed seeds, eggs and diseases. At least several days of temperatures between 135-150 are recommended. Compost piles heat up naturally, but you can control temperatures by increasing or decreasing the size of the pile. Buy a long-stemmed compost thermometer at a local nursery or home and garden stores to monitor the temperature. You also want to avoid overheating the pile. Temperatures above 160 degrees can hurt many of the beneficial organisms.
  • Moisture – Keeping the right moisture level in compost is important for the breakdown process. Take a handful of material and squeeze it. The material should feel damp like a wrung out sponge, but not dripping wet. If the material remains clumped after squeezing without releasing water, it’s perfect. Try covering your piles during rainy season to prevent too much moisture from building up.
  • Location – Select a level site that drains easily and sits on fairly high ground. A dry level area is important when it comes to accessing the pile with equipment. A buffer zone is required between compost piles and nearby streams, wetlands, and ditches and residences. Contact your local Conservation District before finalizing a location.
  • Ingredients – Minimize bedding! The organisms that do the decomposing need the right amount of carbon (straw, wood chips, shavings, sawdust, leaves) and nitrogen (manure, grass clippings, hay) in order to function properly. When you have too much carbon in your pile, decomposition will take longer. High carbon compost also “steals” nitrogen from the soil, which plants need to grow. Some types of bedding (straw, shredded newspaper) decompose faster than others (sawdust or shavings), because they contain less carbon.
  • Is It Ready Yet? – Composting begins as soon as you begin to pile your manure and should cure for at least a couple of weeks. Finished compost is crumbly, evenly textured, earthy-smelling and dark, similar to a commercial potting soil. It generally takes one to three months in the summer, and three to six months in the winter.
  • Pastures should be continually rotated to prevent over-grazing and allow the fields time to re-grow. Once the pasture is dormant, allow three to four weeks for grass to re-grow before using it again.

More in-depth information about composting your manure pile can be found on Washington State University's Whatcom County Extension Website.

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