In working with horse owners who are setting up small acreage for horse keeping, I often see a struggle between balancing the "to do" list and having enough time, money and other resources (such as technical assistance or farm equipment availability) and concerns over regulations. Many times things get so overwhelming that little progress is made towards improvements.
I always recommend this process:
Prioritizing where to start
Determining resources available
Establishing possible lines of financial assistance
First, sit down with paper and pencil (or at your computer) and list out all the improvements you’d like to do to your horse property. These might include:
With your list in hand, determine resources available. Conservation districts are one place to start. Conservation districts are local units of government established under state laws to carry out natural resource management programs at the local level. They work with millions of cooperating landowners and operators to help manage and protect land and water resources on all private lands and many public lands in the United States.
Conservation districts are in every county in the United States; they do not have regulatory authority nor do they levy fines. They provide free (yes, free!) technical assistance and education on a variety of natural resource issues. Helping horse owners get rid of mud in paddocks, choose the appropriate manure management option and improve pastures are all practices they can help with. (In many states they have slightly different names. For example, in Washington State, these entities are known as “conservation districts”; in Oregon and Idaho they are known as “soil and water conservation districts.” In California they are “resource conservation districts.”)
To locate your conservation district do an Internet search with your county name and “conservation district.” Your district office should be able to help you with identifying the small farm land management practices that need assistance on your place and they can assist you in setting priorities.
Either on your own or with your conservation district farm planner, take your list of tasks and map out a clear sequence of events to accomplish over a period of years. Logically, some steps need to happen first before you can do the next, such as installing drainage to deal with excess surface water around the barn before building confinement areas. Or clearing land before renovating pastures.
Winter is a great time to plan things since we are limited in what outdoor activities we can do, so scheming and looking down the road is fun! It will be much easier and less hectic getting material deliveries and using heavy equipment in the dry months so you may want to wait on actually implementing parts of your plan. Imagine trying to guide a big truck through a rutty pasture or down a muddy driveway during a mid-winter storm! Your conservation district can again help you set up a time line for accomplishing tasks.
Get a cost estimate for each project. Again, conservation districts can help with this. They usually have access to lists of approximate costs for practices (say, what it costs to build a 8 foot square treated wood compost bin.) They can usually assist with estimates on materials costs and where supplies are sold. These things vary in different parts of the country as well as from community to community, but it will help you establish a baseline budget. Generally, conservation district workers know their communities and local resources.
No matter what part of the country you live in, there usually is a variety of financial assistance available (local, county, state or federal) to help implement practices that protect natural resources. Work with your conservation district to determine what cost-sharing is available in your area, if you are eligible and how to apply.
In the end, having a plan for managing your place will result in less mud and dust, composted manure and productive pastures will be a major payoff for you, your chore-efficient small farm and your healthy horses, as well as for your neighborhood and the environment.
Examples of potentially fundable practices include building compost bins, creating confinement areas, putting in confinement area footing, installing gutters and downspouts, cross-fencing pastures, fencing livestock out of creeks or water bodies, and surface water diversion projects. In most cases paperwork needs to be done first and approval given before any reimbursable work can be done on a project.
And finally, conservation districts can usually help you with understanding regulations. As I mentioned earlier, conservation districts are non-regulatory, non-enforcement. But they usually are educated on what the current laws and ordinances are affecting livestock owners so that they can help you stay out of trouble. Types of laws which can effect horse properties include how close a structure (compost bins, confinement area, etc.) is to a water body, wellhead or property line, manure management, moving large amounts of dirt and building structures. Be sure to get good advice from the proper authorities when working on these types of issues.
The bottom line is that this: resist overwhelming yourself with the idea that horse property improvements are an all-or-nothing job. This will be a journey accomplished over the course of several years, one step at a time. In the end, less mud and dust, composted manure and productive pastures will be a major payoff for you, your chore-efficient small farm and your healthy horses, as well as for your neighborhood and the environment.