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‘Pristine' farmland not always best for water quality
The vision some people have of Kentucky's ‘horse country' is crisp, white fences cutting across pristine pastures, with nary a weed or tree to intrude on the view. But when it comes to riparian zones, the areas around streams and ponds, a little of nature's clutter can make a world of difference in improving the health of both water and land.
Central Kentucky is seeing an increase in the number of new horse farm owners who are moving to the area in preparation for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Some might not be aware that Kentucky is one of the few states with legislation dealing with water quality as it relates to agricultural or silvicultural pursuits. The Kentucky Agriculture Water Quality Act states if you own 10 or more acres actively involved in agriculture or forestry production, you must have an agriculture water quality plan, a set of best management practices that protect water quality on the property.
"The whole purpose of the act is not to punish farmers," said Amanda Abnee Gumbert, water quality liaison in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "The water quality benefits go beyond just that landowner. We all need clean water. We all need water for our production, for our livestock. Having a water quality plan actually lines out our practices, so that we're doing the best things to protect our water quality and our water resources in the state."
Besides benefiting the state's 89,000 miles of streams and rivers, having a water quality plan gives farmers access to cost share dollars to implement best management practices, such as creating a livestock stream crossing or developing an alternative water source from a spring or city water supply.
Steve Higgins, director of environmental compliance for the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, recently visited a site where the trees and understory around a streambed had been bulldozed to provide horses with additional pasture. Around him, bare ground sloped toward the stream. Patches of recently seeded grass were beginning to take hold, but in areas rain had washed soil into the stream and exposed the rock outcroppings along the shoulder slope.
"In Kentucky, if you're going to do any type of work like this along a stream, you need to have a construction permit or permission from the Kentucky Division of Water to modify the riparian area," he said.
Depending on the county, property owners could be subject to fines for operating heavy equipment in a riparian zone.
Apart from the possible penalties incurred, "neatening" up the area around a body of water isn't a good idea, Higgins said. Nature itself, with its vegetation and meandering streambeds, provides a lot of the ingredients for maintaining a healthy riparian zone.
"Typically we want to keep the vegetation in an area like this. It's a natural filter for the water that's running through this floodplain. It cleans out a lot of the sediment, the pathogens, nutrients, and pesticides," he said.
Higgins has recently implemented a series of best management practices on a stream that cuts through horse paddocks on UK's Spindletop Farm in Fayette County. The spot serves as both a research site and an illustration of sound water management.
"The first thing we did is install this riparian area, which means basically we just placed a fence that meandered along the creek and stayed out of the floodplain," he said, adding that this placement was economically practical because flooding from a large storm event wouldn't demolish the fence.
Vegetation is allowed to grow within the fence, in a no-mow zone.
"You want three levels of vegetation along a riparian area," Higgins said. "The rule of thumb that we use is the ‘rule of threes.' You want a vegetated area that is three times the width of the stream on each side of the water body. And you also want three levels of vegetation - trees, bushes and grasses, because they all play their part in filtering and removing sediment and providing shade to the creek."
The third rule is maintenance three times a year to remove invasive species. Higgins permits a narrow strip to be mowed along the fence line to reduce weed growth in the pasture itself, as well as the spot removal of invasives such as bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper.
Higgins also installed a designated creek crossing for the horses. The spot he chose was free of trees and had a bit of a slope. The use of geotextile material on the slopes prevents erosion. In this instance, the streambed is bedrock, so no geotextile fabric was needed to line the bottom of the creek. However, if the creek had a muddy bottom, a heavier version of the material would be necessary.
Gates on both sides of the stream crossing allow for rotational grazing, another best management practice.
Stream crossings for cattle and horses differ in width. Because cattle will meander across in single file, a crossing as narrow as 8 feet wide suffices. But horses typically cross streams quickly and in a group. For that reason, the crossing at Spindletop Farm is 30 feet wide to prevent the 16 horses in that paddock from rushing as a group into a bottleneck and possibly sustaining injuries in the process.
Dividing a large paddock into two smaller ones left one paddock without a water source for the horses. Fortunately, a spring was discovered in that paddock, and Higgins has plans to develop it as a water source.
"Farmers or livestock producers can utilize the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local conservation district when it comes to work of this sort," he said. "There may be some cost share funds to put in an alternative water source where one doesn't exist."
Help exists for farm owners in developing water quality plans. The UK College of Agriculture provides a Web-based tool at http://www.ca.uky.edu/awqa. By answering a series of questions about their property, landowners can assess their operations and identify best management practices to include in their plans. The site also provides links to agencies that can assist landowners who need technical and financial assistance in implementing their plan.
Landowners are also welcome to view best management practices in action at Spindletop Farm.
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