Water Collection and Runoff on Horse Farms

Water Collection and Runoff on Horse Farms

Being a good steward of your land is part of being a farm owner. Understanding how your horse and horse farm can impact nearby water sources is key.

two horses play in water (Credit: 2019 AQHA Photo Contest submission)

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By Connie Lechleitner, for AQHA

Water and Land Stewardship Matters for Horse Farms 

Where does the wastewater from your farm go? In Pennsylvania, more than half of the state’s water eventually drains to the Chesapeake Basin. Most water from farms in Ohio ends up in the Mississippi River. In points farther west, there are other major rivers that receive wastewater from farm and livestock operations.  

Knowing where your water drains is an important first step in becoming a better steward of your farm. Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States, so it’s no surprise that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with several other agencies, has made water quality through livestock management a top priority. The state of Pennsylvania requires a “Manure Management Manual,” which includes a manure and pasture plan for all farms that have one animal or more.  Being a good steward of your land requires considerations regarding water and ways to conserve water and/or use systems and processes to be more ecofriendly.

Penn State University’s Ann Swinker shares tips on land stewardship, as an equine extension specialist who looks at holistic ways horse farm owners can improve air and water quality. 

Water Collection on Horse Farms 

Other ways you can help keep clean water clean are by installing roof gutters, downspouts and underground outlets. For example, if you install gutters on a 30-by-30-foot building and receive 1 inch of rain, you’ll collect 558 gallons of rainwater. Without drains and gutters, all that water will remain around your building.  

Using gutters, you can create a system to capture the water from your barn roof downspouts and divert that water to stock watering tanks. Note: this is usually best done on fiberglass or metal roofs, but would not  be recommended for water coming off of composite roofs. 

Planting grassy areas (spillways) can also keep the water from running off, Ann says. 

Horse Wash Stalls and Conserving Water 

One surprising area of concern for many horse owners could be their wash stall.  

“Your wash water could be creating a riparian area or wetland that you need to manage,” she says. “Some people have created 'rain garden' areas that include plants that filter out the nutrients, while others have planted trees that drink lots of water. For example, Douglas Fir trees drink 100-250 gallons of water a day. You just need to be sure the landscape trees are not toxic for horses. Evergreens are a good choice.” 

Conserving water runoff from a wash rack is an easy water to repurpose water. (Credit: Journal)

If you live in the Western United States, you are probably used to finding ways to help curb your water usage, as it isn't uncommon to have a well run dry, or have to observe water-restriction rules, or maybe you are are worried about fire season. Whatever the reason, and regardless of what part of the country you live in and the given terrain, conserving water is likely to be a priority (even to reduce your carbon footprint!).  Below are  some ideas to help you reduce water consumption on your farm.

  • Compost. Composting your horse manure and using it on your pastures, gardens, etc. is a common practice. If you have the manure available, why not use it? Using composted horse manure helps to prepare your plants for dry weather, as it creates soil that is better at absorbing and retaining moisture. 
  • Mulch. Using mulch around your plants is another way to help retain moisture. 
  • Water plants deep in the ground. Usually, large or mature plants (one to three years old) require less watering. Many people will water frequently and in small amounts, which encourages the roots to grow shallow into the earth. Instead, water for long periods of time but less often, so that the water seeps deep into the ground and encourages the roots to grow deep into the earth. 
  • Water smart. Water in the evening hours, as evaporation is least likely.  
  • An automatic watering system. An automatic watering system allows you to only use as much water as your horse(s) drink(s). Keep in mind that you'll want a small- to medium-sized pan, because a large one is going to fill with algae more often and require more cleaning.  Additional pros are that smaller watering pans help reduce mosquitos, as there is no stagnant water, and they provide cool water to your horse in the summer and warm water in the winter.  

  • Repurpose water when you can. Whether you are scrubbing or cleaning buckets or washing your horse in the wash stall, always keep spare buckets around to hold water that you can re-purpose for plants, or elsewhere, instead of dumping it down the drain or into a turnout. 

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