written by Alayne Blickle, creator/director of Horses for Clean Water
In case you weren’t able to join the horse farm tour put on by King Conservation District this past August at Pale Horse Farm in Auburn on the Enumclaw plateau, here is a brief synopsis of what we covered and the best management practices included.
Best management practices, or BMPs, are techniques for managing livestock and land as recommended by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and King Conservation District (KCD). BMPs are recommended practices to ensure that animals remain healthy, chores can be accomplished efficiently, and air, water, soil, and wildlife are conserved.
When KCD offers a public farm tour, the purpose is to showcase BMPs on-the-ground so that others can see what they actually look like in practice. Farm tours are a peer-to-peer education process where one landowner shares personal experiences with fellow horse and livestock owners, including what worked, didn’t work, and how they achieved what they have.
This past summer, a group of about 45 people eagerly braved strong sun and hazy skies to see what landowners Lara and Justin Schmauser, and their roommate Mark Treneer, had to share about their chore-efficient 5-acre horse property.
I recently talked with Justin Schmauser about the tour and his experiences with KCD. He had this to say:
“When we moved in, four years ago, we knew the barn needed to be modified so our two horses would have individual paddocks off the barn. The barn was completely overgrown in blackberries and hadn’t been used in well over 10 years,” explained Justin.
“We were researching options and Lara found the KCD website on the internet. We reached out to them and heard back right away from Jay Mirro,” a KCD senior resource planner. “Within two months of moving in we had obtained a full farm plan from Jay.”
A farm conservation plan is a document developed by KCD and the landowner which recommends a series of actions that are designed to meet a landowner’s goals while protecting natural resources: soil, water, air, plants, and wildlife. Some of the things considered in the farm conservation plan are farm size, soil type(s), slope of the land, proximity to streams or water bodies, type of livestock or crops, the landowner’s goals, resources such as machinery or buildings, existing vegetation (particularly native plants, like mature trees), and finances available. Both commercial and non-commercial operations can have a farm conservation plan developed for them. Plans are free and without obligation; even though KCD is a subdivision of the State of Washington, it is non-regulatory, non-enforcement special purpose district, so landowners need not feel constrained to implement it.
“Initially Jay came out and did a personal tour with us, walking through our land and discussing things,” explained Justin. “Once we had the farm plan, we just started executing it as it was described for us.”
In order to house the horses, the Schmausers had to cut stall doorways in the barn walls so they could create individual paddocks for the horses which they separated using hotwire. “Once we had stall mats in the stalls we were able to bring the horses home.”
“One of the first parts of the farm plan we implemented was gutters for the barn,” explained Schmauser. “That was very simple. We hired a company. They came out. I think it was $600 and they were in and out in 2 hours.” Gutters and downspouts are extremely helpful for reducing the amount of rainfall that ends up creating muck in confinement areas. In addition, gutters and downspouts keep clean rainwater clean and help reduce non-point pollution by keeping nutrients (from manure and urine) and sediments (from mud) from getting washed off a property and potentially reaching any nearby waterways.
“They (the gutters and downspouts) completely changed the landscape for the horses. Prior to their installation, 90% of the rainfall was falling on the ground off the roof creating trenches from the constant dripping and puddling, and it was splashing into the barn.” Roof water runoff is now directed away from the barn towards vegetation where it soaks back into the footprint of the property, helping to recharge groundwater.
This aspect of the summer tour was particularly interesting to many participants once they realized that 45,000 gallons of rainwater runs off the Schmauser’s barn annually. Diverting this rainwater away from the confinement areas definitely decreases mud, makes the area healthier for the horses, and is easier for daily chore of manure removal.
Next stop on the farm conservation plan – and for the tour – was implementation of pasture management and rotational grazing.
“We installed a fence which divided the existing two areas of the pasture into five smaller grazing areas to be used for future rotational grazing,” recounts Justin. “Two of the grazing areas have water at the back end. One has a creek that’s near the property line and the other has water that ponds up in the rainy season.” The Schmausers fenced off these areas from the horses to avoid creating mud and polluting surface water, creating a protected buffer. “We hope to eventually plant native plants in there and enhance it a bit for wildlife.”
During the tour participants were able to see how the Schmausers utilize their pastures by rotating horses through the different grazing areas, never allowing one area to be grazed below 3 or 4 inches. This keeps grass plants healthy and productive. “Also, we don’t use the pastures in winter when grasses are dormant and not growing and soils are soggy,” explains Justin.
“The next big thing we did was make the confinement areas. We excavated them out a bit and put in gravel footing for drainage. Close to the barn in the heaviest use areas, we put in Lighthoof grid product with larger rocks on the bottom.” This process helps avoid compaction, allowing for drainage.
“The confinement areas slope (and drain) into our pasture and not towards any of our neighbors. That way we keep runoff within our property as much as possible,” avoiding runoff problems for neighbors while recharging the natural hydrology of their property.
Farm tour participants learned how the Schmausers did most of this work by hand. “We borrowed a neighbor’s tractor for a part of it and we rented a compactor. Everything else was by hand,” says Justin.
Next on the list was more secure fencing for the confinement areas. “We installed Flex-fencing,” Justin explains. “We chose it for horse safety and for ease of maintenance, and because it’s versatile.”
Schmausers also installed gates between the confinement areas and the grazing areas, to allow for chore efficiency.
All of the work on their property was done in less than one year.
“In 2021, we installed the manure composting bins,” Justin recounts. “We built the compost bins because our manure piles were unsightly and muddy. From a purely esthetic point it was an eyesore. Also, it wasn’t composting — probably because it wasn’t generating heat. It was ineffective, unsightly, and unmanageable.”
“We built it to KCD’s specs. There are three bins; each is 8×8 square with a concrete base and wooden treated boards on the sides.” Schmausers were able to build everything themselves except for the cement pad for which they hired a contractor. Farm tour participants were able to inspect Pale Horse Farm’s compost bins up close and ask questions about the composting process.
As farm tour participants witnessed, “We can easily manage it now. We can turn it, we can cover it. There are just tons and tons of positives,” says Justin about having a compost system now versus a manure pile.
KCD offers “cost-sharing” where landowners are reimbursed for a portion of the costs involved for implementation of certain BMPs.
“We were able to receive cost-sharing on much of the bigger costs: manure compost bins and the confinement areas,” details Justin.
“My overall thought is that it was totally possible to have done it all by ourselves, but the amount of assistance we got, beyond the monetary cost-share portion, of having them (KCD) in our corner and being able to talk with them plus having a whole farm plan was just priceless. We were acting fast, and it was a load off of our minds to know we could reference a personalized plan from a source we could trust.”
Farm tour participants received a priceless treat as well: the opportunity to talk candidly with landowners about the process as well as with KCD staff, receiving advice and technical assistance they can take home and use in their own situations to help make their properties mud-free and chore-efficient.
“There’s no way to put a dollar amount to it (KCD’s help); having knowledgeable people to assist you is really, really hard to find,” summarizes Justin as he thinks back on the process. “The fact that they were willing to work with us for free and create a long-term plan was invaluable.”
Contact KCD to get free technical assistance with your horse or livestock property – or join in on a KCD farm tour in 2024!