(first appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Equiery)
It is April, and we generally have two things on our minds: filing our personal income tax returns, and spring cleaning, or in the case of most of our readers, April means fixing up the farm.
Well, your farm fix-up project might just be an opportunity to get some of your tax dollars back from the government.
As just about any Marylander knows, there has been a federal and regional movement to “clean up the Bay” for decades. As part of those efforts, there are now a variety of cost-share programs designed to entice livestock farmers to install what are deemed to be “best management practices” (or BMPs) for restoring the watersheds.
Regardless of whether or not one agrees politically with cost-share programs (many folks would prefer it if the federal and the Maryland state governments would just lower income taxes), the fact of that matter is that currently our government recycles our tax dollars into a variety of programs designed to serve as carrots to encourage us into behavior that is deemed desirable by current administrations.
If you need to make improvements on your farm and there are cost-share dollars to be had, then it is certainly worthwhile to investigate them. Consider them an opportunity to get something of a refund on your taxes!
Regardless of whether or not you participate in cost-share programs, both the Maryland Department of Agriculture and your local Soil Conservation District offer a wealth of information to help you fix up your farm, from guidelines for heavy-use pads to tips for harvesting rain to water your horses. Below we share bits and pieces of information from these resources, more details for which can be found via this link: http://mda.maryland.gov
SECTION 1: FARM FIX-UP FUNDING
Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share (MACS)
The MACS Program provides farmers with grants to cover up to 87.5 percent of the cost of installing conservation measures known as best management practices on their farms to prevent soil erosion, manage nutrients and safeguard water quality in streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Grassed waterways planted to prevent gully erosion in farm fields, streamside buffers of grasses and trees planted to filter sediment and farm runoff, and animal waste management systems constructed to help farmers safely handle and store manure resources are among more than 30 best management practices currently eligible for cost-share grants.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Animal Waste Technology Fund provides incentives to companies that demonstrate new technologies on farms and provide alternative strategies for managing animal manure. These technologies generate energy from animal manure, reduce on-farm waste streams, and repurpose manure by creating marketable fertilizer and other products and by-products.
The Animal Waste Technology Fund helps farmers address challenges in managing manure under Maryland’s new nutrient management requirements. Alternative strategies for complying with these requirements may include altering the nutrient content of organic nutrient sources, using manure for energy generation, or developing new products that add value to improve farm viability.
Maryland Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program
What is CREP?
The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) grew out of increasing recognition that wetlands and lands adjacent to streams (riparian areas) and other water bodies have a tremendous impact on water quality and provide critical wildlife habitat. These important conservation areas can be protected and restored in many ways. CREP provides attractive annual cash rental payments to farm landowners willing to voluntarily take sensitive land out of agricultural production and restore and protect these buffer areas.
Under CREP, landowners contract with USDA through their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) to receive annual rental payments, plus bonuses, for taking land out of production and installing conservation practices adjacent to waterways. With the additional support of MDA, landowners can also receive up to 87.5% reimbursement for cost of installation of conservation practices, such as riparian forest or vegetative buffer planting, or retirement of highly erodible lands and 50% reimbursement for wetlands. The contract agreement lasts for 10 to 15 years. In addition, landowners can sign a conservation easement and receive an additional bonus payment in exchange for an agreement to retain the conservation practices in perpetuity.
How can landowners participate in this program?
First, landowners should contact their local FSA or Soil Conservation District (SCD) Office to find out if their land meets CREP contract eligibility requirements. Generally, agricultural land (crop land or pasture) adjacent to perennial or intermittent waterways, certain highly erodible lands within 1,000 feet of a waterway, and prior converted wetlands qualify for the program. Local DNR foresters and wildlife biologists can also help enroll participants.
Once a landowner has signed up for the contract, he or she can also choose to begin working with a local partner to execute the CREP easement and receive an additional one-time payment. Information about the easement is available through the local SCD office or local land trust. Partnerships to deliver the easement component of the CREP have been developed between DNR and a number of local land trust organizations.
Participants can also enter the CREP program in conjunction with Rural Legacy, Maryland Agricultural and Preservation Foundation (MALPF) or donated easement programs such as Maryland Environmental Trust (MET). In this case, the landowner can initiate easement discussions, then be referred by the land trust organization or local sponsor to the SCD to concurrently execute a CREP contract.
Planting & Maintenance Requirements
All lands enrolled in CREP must be planted in approved mixes of trees and/or grasses and maintained as permanent cover for the life of the contract. Haying or grazing of CREP lands will not be prohibited.
• Marginal pastureland can only be planted in trees.
• Cropland can be planted in trees or grasses.
• Wetlands can be managed as shallow water areas or restored as a natural wetland.
• An upland buffer around the wetland can be included in the wetland boundary.
Maintenance practices, such as mowing, may be required. Control of noxious weeds will be required.
How do I benefit from CREP?
Landowners enrolled in CREP are paid an annual soil rental rate plus an annual bonus, as a percent of the soil rental rate. Participants can choose to plant a streamside forest (100% bonus) or a grass buffer or wetland (80% bonus). Higher incentives are paid for streamside forests because of the broad array of habitat and water quality benefits they provide. Payments are made yearly for the life of the contract. Landowners will be reimbursed 85.7% for planting a streamside forest and or for planting a grass buffer, and 50% for restoring a wetland through a cooperative agreement with the Farm Service Agency and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Below is an example of an annual soil rental rate:
Average rental rate of $70/acre + Streamside forest bonus of 100% = A total annual rental rate of $140/acre
Used in conjunction with nutrient management and sediment and erosion control practices, streamside forests can benefit you and your stream through the following:
• Providing a dependable income to the owner
• Removing nutrients and sediment from shallow groundwater and surface water
• Reducing pesticide and herbicide spray drift and runoff to streams
• Providing important habitat for aquatic life, birds, and small game
• Supporting recreational hunting and fishing opportunities
What about an easement?
Landowners enrolled in CREP can sell an easement on their land directly to the state or through local land trusts. Easement payments are based on the fair market value of foregone development and agricultural productivity costs.
CREP Easement Example
If you choose to sell an easement you will receive a one-time payment on top of annual rental rates at the time of sign-up. Easement payments range from $765/acre in Garrett County to $6,431/acre in Harford County.
The average rate is $2,340/acre.
Example: 10 acres of streamside forest in Frederick County with an easement:
Annual rental payment for 15 years: $1,105
Bonus at sign-up for easement: $19,080
Total Payments over 15 years: $35,655
Can I enroll my Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practices in CREP?
The same parcel of land may not be enrolled in CREP and CRP at the same time; however, CRP participants with expiring contracts may enroll in a new CREP contract at attractive rates and qualify for $200 per acre in federal and state sign-up bonuses if all eligibility requirements are met.
How do I know if my CRP practices qualify for CREP?
CRP practices that qualify for CREP must be next to a stream or waterway or located on highly erodible land that is within 1,000 feet of a stream. Cropland may be eligible if it was planted to an agricultural commodity, can meet cropping history requirements, and is still physically and legally capable of being planted. Marginal pastureland next to a stream may also be eligible for certain practices.
If I re-enroll in CREP, can I change the current conservation practice?
Yes. You may change the current conservation practice, but only if it results in a higher environmental benefit as determined by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) or the soil conservation district.
If you are an existing CREP or CRP participant with a contract that is about to expire, there’s good news. CREP offers easy re-enrollment of existing practices at attractive land rental rates. In addition to the steady income that CREP provides, you may qualify for a state $100 per acre sign-up bonus that is payable soon after the contract is signed.
SECTION II: Farm Fix-Up Projects
Build a “Water Harvester”
Water management is a major concern for equine operators, especially during times of drought. Water harvesting provides one possible solution to the challenges of having enough water for the farm while controlling water movement on the property. Water harvesting is a system that collects, stores, and distributes rainwater to benefit the farm.
Reducing soil erosion, protecting waterways from polluted runoff and reclaiming a valuable natural resource are but a few of the benefits of water harvesting. Water harvesting relieves the demands on increasingly limited and expensive potable water supplies.
The amount of rainfall that runs off a barn roof is substantial. One inch of rainfall produces 416 gallons of water per 1,000 square feet of roof area. The rush of water from a roof is capable of washing out foundations, damaging equipment, and creating gullies that threaten the safety of people and livestock. Rainwater flowing unimpeded from a roof moves large amounts of soil, manure and other contaminants into waterways, and threatens wildlife habitat and drinking water supplies.
The basic components of a water harvesting system include the barn roof, gutters, downspouts, roof washer (pre-filter), storage tank, pump, and an overflow outlet.
Rainwater runs from the roof into gutters and empties via downspouts into a roof washer (a filter that prevents bulk contaminants like dirt, bird droppings, leaves, twigs and nuts from entering the tank). The filtered rainwater flows into the storage tank, which is often installed underground to prevent freezing or above ground in areas with milder winters. A pump takes water from the storage tank for uses like dust control, pad washing, and pasture irrigation.
Water collected for livestock to drink would need additional filtering and treatment to remove pathogens. An overflow pipe from the storage tank allows excess water to drain away in a controlled and less damaging way.
Contact your local Soil Conservation District office for advice and assistance in designing a water harvesting system for your operation.
Heavy Use Pad
Mud can be a big problem wherever animals congregate, especially around gates, water troughs, barn entrances, and feeding pads. If mud in these areas is making life miserable, “heavy use pads” are an easy and somewhat inexpensive fix.
The main components of a heavy use pad, stone and geo-textile fabric, allow water to slowly drain away without mixing with the soil. They are simple to install if you have a front loading tractor and can do simple excavation work. If not, you might want to hire someone with the necessary equipment.
Don’t skimp on the size of the pad. If you’re installing one around a trough, make it at least the length of one horse on each accessible side of the trough. To give your pad the best chance of working, first divert any runoff, such as from barn, shed and house downspouts, so it moves around, not through, the area. Downspout extenders, gravel trenches and low berms are easy ways to reroute water. Contact your Soil Conservation District for advice on safely rerouting runoff.
Excavate the area 11-13 inches below existing soil surface and then level.
Install class SE non-woven filter fabric on the bottom and up the sides. If the fabric isn’t wide enough, refer to manufacturer’s recommendations for overlap.
The six-inch stone base should be #2 stones or millings (recycled blacktop, which you might be able to get from a nearby road crew), and will need to be compacted.
The middle zone should be three inches of CR6 or CR8 (CR is “crusher run” and can be ordered from a local quarry; CR6 ranges in size from dust to 3/4 inches wide. CR8 is smaller.).
The four-inch “wearing” surface should be either stone dust or sand. This level will need to be routinely leveled and compacted, and occasionally replenished.
A Green Heavy Use Area
Facilities that are limited in turnout space but high in horse numbers may overuse the land. Overuse can lead to soil compaction, mud, loss of pasture grass, and soil erosion. Another problem that can arise is weed invasion, which can increase the likelihood of a horse consuming toxic weeds.
Maintaining a healthy stand of grass in heavily used areas will provide your horses with a safe source of forage to nibble on and a mud-free area for them to roam freely. Healthy grass stands will reduce the possibility of contaminating local water resources with soil and nutrient movement from your farm. A general rule of thumb is to manage the land so that at least 50% of it is covered by grass year-round.
A heavy use area is a section of the farm that is heavily used by horses when regular pastures are too wet, need to recover from grazing, or where hay is being fed (winter, early spring, drought, supplemental). While these areas are useful, they often develop thick mud during wet weather and encourage year-long weed proliferation. Establishing and maintaining grass in these areas, thereby turning them into vegetative heavy use areas, is not only beneficial to horses and horse owners, but to the environment as well.
Establishing a vegetative heavy use area on a horse farm is not difficult, but it is recommended that horse farm owners seek the assistance of their soil conservation district personnel to ensure that their effort and money are well spent. Here are a few guidelines to consider when establishing vegetative heavy use areas on a horse farm:
• Establish a vegetative heavy use area that is at least 600 square feet/animal unit (1 animal unit = 1,000 lbs). Example: for 10 horses weighing an average of 1250 lbs, each vegetative sacrifice area should be at least 7,500 square feet (12.5 animal units x 600 square feet) or 0.17 acres.
• Seed vegetative heavy use areas following recommendations or those provided by your local soil conservation district
Grasses Best Adapted for Heavy Use Areas
Tall fescue is widely recognized as a superior soil conservation and pasture plant because of its deep, fibrous root system, tolerance to a wide range of soil conditions, adaptation to various climates, and long stand life. It is persistent, easy to establish, more tolerant of continuous and close grazing than orchard grass, and usually produces higher pasture yields than other cool-season grasses. It tolerates excessive soil moisture (somewhat poorly drained soils) and dry, droughty sites. It survives on acidic (pH 5.4 to 6.2), low fertility soils, but a good soil fertility maintenance program will aid in producing more vigorous growth under conditions where soil stabilization is critical. And whereas orchard grass and timothy have been seriously damaged by insects and diseases in recent years, tall fescue is seldom injured by insects or diseases. It is more tolerant of horse and machinery traffic and mismanagement than other cool season grasses such as orchard-grass and timothy. Two very desirable features that make tall fescue useful in providing cover on heavy use areas are its abilities to produce a large amount of coarse, tough roots and to form dense ground cover quickly, thus forming dense solid stands that make it almost impossible to pull the plant out of the ground. Benefits to the soil from such an extensive root system include improved soil structure, decreased soil density, and reduced surface soil erosion. The high density of plant tillers makes tall fescue effective in protecting the soil from erosion and filtering surface water flowing over the crop. The dense root system resists treading damage by horses during extended periods of wet weather.
Turf-type tall fescue varieties should not be used for pasture and forage purposes for horse breeding operations because it can lead to reproductive problems in broodmares. However, for other horse operations, turf-type varieties of tall fescue are better suited for heavy use areas than forage-type varieties. Wide acceptance of tall fescue as a turf species is due to the development of low growing, high tiller density plants having improved durability due to greater pest and wear tolerance.
Many of the turf-type varieties are infected with high levels of an endophytic fungus, which provides the increased pest resistance. Horse owners who are reluctant to use endophyte-infected turf-type tall fescue varieties can use so-called ‘novel’ or ‘friendly’ non-toxic forage-type varieties sold under the trade name Jesup/Max Q® (the only variety currently available). But recognize that the forage varieties are not likely to be as durable and persistent as the turf-type varieties under heavy use conditions.
Kentucky bluegrass is also an excellent erosion control plant because of its dense, vigorous turf-forming habit. Kentucky bluegrass spreads by underground rhizomes (stems) and is a true sod-forming grass, whereas orchard grass and tall fescue are bunch-type grasses that do not spread. But Kentucky bluegrass is not well adapted in much of Maryland and Delaware. Bluegrass is sensitive to hot, dry conditions and goes dormant during much of the summer period. However, its sod-forming characteristic is beneficial in providing ground cover between the bunch-type tall fescue plants and is often recommended in mixture with tall fescue or orchard grass for horse pastures and heavy use areas.
Bermuda grass also shows promise for providing cover of heavy use areas, especially the vegetatively propagated varieties (established from plant parts or sprigs, not seed). Successful plantings of the variety ‘Quickstand’ have been established throughout Maryland but unavailability of sprigs limits its use. Recommendations in the state of Maryland for the seeded varieties of Wrangler, Mohawk, and Cheyenne are being evaluated based on USDA plant hardiness zones and site conditions.
For Jesup Max Q® tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass plantings, use 30 lbs. pure live seed (PLS) per acre of Jesup Max Q® tall fescue and use 10 lbs. PLS per acre of Kentucky bluegrass. Suitable varieties of bluegrass include Slezanka, Park, Troy and Ginger. Seeding rates much higher than those used for hay and pasture production are recommended to quickly and effectively establish the dense sod and cover needed to resist wear and tolerate the pressures on these areas.
In midsummer of every year, the vegetative heavy use areas should be evaluated for renovation needs. Overseeding may be necessary.
Many thanks to the resources of MDA’s Horse Outreach Workshop for the materials for this section. For more information: