Would you enjoy listening to the countless harmonies and tones of birdsong from your fields and around your house? The sound is complex, beautiful and incredibly relaxing. Happily, this and many other perks of nature can be created on your farm through the implementation of Best Management Practice (BMP) projects. BMP projects not only help improve your health, your horses’ health and the overall environmental health of your farm, they can also help save you money.
There are many types of BMP projects and their benefits include improved water quality on and off the farm, natural habitat for terrestrial and aquatic species, soil fertility and soil water-holding capability, and reduced soil losses from erosion. This article will discuss some of the more common and economical BMPs to implement on your farm.
Planting native trees and shrubs helps stabilize soil and reduce erosion, and their extensive root systems absorb excess nutrients, such as nitrates found in horse manure. Trees also provide shelter from cold winter winds and shade during the summer, and offer increased biodiversity, as an added bonus.
Don’t just rake up the leaves – they also have value. Decomposing leaf litter improves soil fertility by providing nutrients needed for grass growth and for pasture seed to sprout. Improved soil fertility also results in improved nutrient uptake as horses graze.
Plus, planting trees and shrubs can improve the overall aesthetic of the farm, which can lead to increased property value.
Another simple and economical BMP project is riparian planting, which creates a buffer area between an aquatic ecosystem, like a pond, and the upland lawn or pasture areas that surround it. You can create one by leaving a section of un-mowed grass between your pond and lawn or pasture, and adding some shrubs and trees.
Similar to tree planting, riparian buffers help stabilize soil, reduce erosion and absorb excess nutrients found in runoff contaminated by manure, agricultural pesticides and herbicides or other organic waste. The shade from trees and shrubs help keep water cool and creates habitat for birds, small mammals, amphibians and countless beneficial insects. In addition, riparian buffers can help mitigate flood damage.
Do you have a pond on your property that is home to a number of Canada geese or becomes covered with a layer of green algae by July? Having a riparian buffer can discourage both from taking it over.
By nature, geese prefer water features with an adjacent open, manicured lawn. The open space allows them to identify predators from a distance and provides a quick escape to the water. A manicured lawn is also a prime source of food. A well-planned riparian buffer will contain a variety of plant species and as the plants grow, the area around the water “fills in.” The resulting habitat is undesirable to geese because of obstructed sight lines. You may still have a few geese that will land to rest, but they will not contribute to further impacting the water quality in your pond.
Riparian buffers also control algae, which thrives in warm water. Nearby trees, shrubs and grasses provide shade and cool the water, inhibiting algae growth. As the vegetation matures, the root systems absorb more and more nutrients. More nutrients absorbed by the buffer plants, means fewer entering the water. As a result, aquatic plants like algae starve.
For assistance planning a riparian buffer, contact your local conservation authority or another environmental agency such as Trees Ontario, Cows and Fish (Alberta), or the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, for example. They have staff to provide free technical advice on planting densities and species suitable for your location.
Note that allowing horses to enter water features for drinking will destroy the water bank and vegetation growing there. Bare or damaged banks are prone to erosion, which, in turn, increases the amount of sediment entering the water. Increased sedimentation can smother fish eggs, destroy aquatic habitat and reduce overall water quality. Plus, with the loss of vegetation and constant hoof traffic, mud holes form. The manure and urine deposited in or near these areas create cesspools of harmful bacteria, pathogens and parasites, which pose a significant health threat if ingested. In addition, the high concentrations of nutrients promote algae growth, reducing the amount of oxygen available for aquatic plant and fish species. As such, you might want to consider fencing off your pond to restrict your horses’ access.
Manure Storage Facility
Managing manure is one of the biggest challenges for most farms, especially those on smaller acreage. Constructing a manure storage facility is a great way to help with that challenge.
The design of a storage facility can be quite simple and you may even have some of the materials around the farm already. Ideally, however, a storage facility would be engineered to have a concrete pad that is sloped towards the back of the structure, have continuous concrete walls on three sides, and a solid weatherproof structure.
Yes, this costs money, but the better you manage your manure, the greater your farm efficiency becomes, and this can result in money saved. For example, loading the truck to haul manure off-site takes time. By having an easily accessible, controlled pile, labour time is reduced thanks to three sturdy walls that the loader can push against. Labour time is also reduced since less time will be spent on controlling “pile creep.”
Getting the tractor stuck in the mud when working around the manure pile could also be a thing of the past since rain water can be diverted from the area. This is where a sloped pad and a roof are beneficial. The roof can direct rainwater to a controlled location, and prevent it from becoming contaminated. If there is no roof, the slope of the pad will direct any contaminated water to the back of the storage where it will be trapped by the walls. If your storage design does not include a pad, then consider grading the area in such a way that all runoff from the storage and surrounding area flows to one location (e.g. via a three-sided trench). Runoff water is collected by the trench, which empties in one location where it can then be directed through a grassed swale (aka ditch). The swale slows the water, which provides time for infiltration and nutrient absorption.
From an environmental perspective, appropriate manure management can decrease and/or virtually eliminate the amount of nutrient rich runoff from entering surface waters or possibly contaminating your well water supply. Retaining and controlling water runoff will help prevent excessive algae and aquatic plant growth as well as prevent bacteria and other pathogens, harmful to human and animal health, from entering the water system.
If you plan on constructing a manure storage facility, contact your municipal planning and/or engineering department to get information on permit requirements and by-laws. A nutrient management consultant will be able to assist you with sizing the storage and determining the right location on-farm (e.g. maintaining adequate distances from wells, water features, etc.). The Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada launched the national Growing Forward 2 program in April 2013 (see sidebar on page 42). Under this program, more than $3 billion has been allocated over the next five years to support provincially based cost-share programs, which provide technical assistance and financial support to farmers to assist them with capacity building and implementing BMP projects such as constructing manure storages. Note, the term capacity building refers to pursuing education, skills development and training assessments/audits to strengthen an eligible farm business. The focus of capacity building can be at the individual level (an employee for training) or at the organizational level (conducting a market analysis as a group to assist in decision making).
Runoff contaminated by manure or other agricultural activities poses a threat to water quality. If you draw water from a well, it is especially important that the well is maintained to the highest standards, not only because you and your horses drink from the well, but because it provides a direct link to an underground aquifer. An aquifer is an underground layer of gravel, sand, silt or permeable rock which has the ability to hold water. A poorly maintained well may have a crack in the casing or lid, which could allow contamination to enter. This poses a serious health threat to you, your family and horses, and to all of the people who draw water from this aquifer for drinking.
According to the Ministry of the Environment, a landowner is legally responsible for any well on their property. It is, therefore, critically important that a well on your property is regularly checked and maintained, especially if it is downslope from a possible contamination source such as a manure pile, septic bed or even a pasture area. The Ministry further recommends that well water be tested at least three times a year, as the quality of well water can change even though the taste, smell, or look does not.
If you have an old or abandoned well on your property that is no longer in use, it should be decommissioned. Decommissioning a well properly closes off the pathway from the ground surface to the aquifer, therefore, eliminating the threat of contaminating the aquifer. Decommissioning a well involves removing the entire plumbing infrastructure such as pumps and pipes, removing the top portion of the casing, and backfilling the lower portion of the well and surrounding area with clean, uncontaminated granular material. The last, and perhaps most crucial, step is backfilling the top portion of the well itself. This is done using bentonite grout, an absorbent clay-cement mixture, which provides a permanent, impermeable plug. Legally, well decommissioning must be completed by a licensed well contractor.
Your best source of information for wells is through your local well contractor or the local health department. More specific information on the protection of drinking water and corresponding legislation can be found through agencies such as Ontario Drinking Water Source Protection or published documents such as the British Columbia Action Plan for Safe Drinking Water. Water testing can be completed through the public health department or private laboratories. Contractors and health departments should also be able to provide you with contact information for water testing agencies/laboratories.
Water Conservation Through Cisterns
If you don’t have the good fortune of having a well that provides an abundance of water, have you considered installing a cistern?
Cisterns are low-cost water conservation devices that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Their sole purpose is to capture and store rainwater for later use. For example, the average 60m by 20m arena has a 1,200m2 roof. The volume of rainfall from an average storm event of reasonable duration collected from a roof this size could easily fill a 15,000L cistern.
The water in the cistern can then be used as wash water for horses and equipment, to water plants, flush toilets, and even for irrigation and fire-fighting. This not only reduces the strain on the natural system, it also reserves your drinking quality water for consumption. Another benefit of storing and diverting runoff from impervious areas such as roofs is that flooding and erosion impacts are mitigated since the runoff volume is reduced, which delays and reduces the peak runoff flow rates into the natural system. By incorporating a cistern into your farm’s operation, you are not only reducing the strain on the municipal drainage system, you could also decrease your water bill.
If you’re interested in improving the environmental quality of your farm, consider implementing one or more of the BMP projects discussed above. Don’t forget that there are many other types of BMP projects. Links to papers and programs across the country can be accessed through the Agriculture Canada website www.agr.gc.ca. Your farm’s health and that of your horses could be improved and it may end up saving you money!
FUNDING OPPORTUNITIES THROUGH GROWING FORWARD 2
The National Growing Forward 2 policy framework is the foundation for government agricultural programs and services across the nation including the popular Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) program.
The framework is broken down into six areas of focus, they are:
- Environment and Climate Change (area of focus specific to EFP)
- Assurance Systems (Food Safety, Traceability and Animal Welfare)
- Market Development
- Animal and Plant Health
- Labour Productivity Enhancement;
- Business and Leadership Development
The framework also distinguishes three agricultural sectors: producers, processors, or organizations and collaborations. Equine operations, regardless of type, fall into the producer category. Equine operations are further divided into three categories and the type of assistance available is dependent on the type of equine operation you have. The three categories are:
Horse Breeding Facility: If you are a horse breeding producer business that files business and/or farm income/loss taxes in your province, you are eligible for capacity building (50 per cent cost share) and implementation (35 per cent cost share) programming. For example, a capacity building project under the Environment and Climate Change Adaptation category could be the development of a grazing management plan. The funding covers consultative service fees, purchasing planning and decision support tools (e.g. computer software), maps/aerial photos, data collection, materials and sampling and analysis cost. An implementation project example under the same category could involve structural erosion control such as ditch bank stabilization, grassed waterways, contour terraces, gully stabilization or upgrading tile outlet structures.
Racing/Boarding Facility: If you are a horse racing stable business or horse boarding stable business, including training facilities, you are eligible to apply for GF2 capacity building (50 per cent cost share) programming only, not implementation. For example, a capacity building project under the Animal and Plant Health category would be related to biosecurity, disease detection and emergency management/response. The funding covers veterinary/consultant fees associated with these assessments.
Organizations/Collaborations: If you are a horse sector organization or collaboration, your group is eligible for capacity building (75 per cent cost share) and implementation (50-75 per cent cost share) programming. For example, a capacity building project under the Environment and Climate Change Adaptation category could be developing a water quality plan to determine agricultural related risks in a specific watershed. An implementation project example under the same category could be a project that encourages members to improve their water use efficiency through the installation of water meters and recording usage rates to develop benchmark data.
The GF2 cost-share funding cap for a single farm business covering both Capacity Building incentives and Project Implementation is $350,000 over the five-year timeframe of the program (April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2018).
More information on the National Growing Forward 2 policy framework can be found on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website at: www.agr.gc.ca (under “Programs and Services”). Information on completing an EFP for your property can also be found on this web-site or through your local agricultural organization.