Drought-proofing horse properties. Australia is a country in the grip of extreme weather bingo. Over the last year we have seen record temperatures, prolongued dry conditions in some areas whilst in others, the drought broke with devastating floods and damage.
Australia is, of course, no stranger to extreme weather, but as a horse owner, are you preparing for a future of uncertain and extreme weather events?
In this article, we discuss some of the tried and tested permaculture strategies that make land more resilient and particularly drought-proof, and apply them in a horse property context.
A land of droughts and flooding rains
Bushfire, flooding rains and skin-peeling heat are central to Australia’s history and traditions – but the contrasts this summer have been particularly stark.
For most people, the obvious shift has been felt as heat. January was Australia’s hottest month on record by a wide margin, with average national temperatures nearly a degree beyond the previous benchmark, and 2.9 degrees warmer than the long-term mean according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
In New South Wales, the average temperature was nearly 6 degrees hotter than what has been considered normal for the past century!
Overall, concern about climate change is growing around the world. In 2018, more Australians accepted the reality of climate change than at almost any time, with 76% accepting climate change is occurring, 11% not believing in it and 13% being unsure (source: Australian Institute, 2018).
In a way, Australia is considered at the forefront of the climate change adaptation challenge and our farmers are the ones that have to lead the charge.
Farmers will have to cope, among other pressures, with longer droughts, more unpredictable rainfall, higher temperatures, and changes to the timing of the seasons. Interestingly enough, many farmers have traditionally been sceptical about climate change for various reasons. But over the last decade, their attitude to climate, climate change and climate variability has come a long way and now they are much accepting of the facts behind the science.
Some of the signs of this attitude shift can be seen, for example, in the creation of events like the Young Carbon Farmers, Farmers for Climate Action (the first ever rally on climate change by farmers in Canberra), and the national advertising campaigns by farmers calling for climate action, including a call for action to reduce greenhouse emissions.
In addition, we see a growing trend of farmers (who still want to continue farming) turning to regenerative, organic or biodynamic agriculture and realising a change in mindset was needed as they could no longer manage a drying landscape without major changes to their farming practices.
Horse keeping and climate change extremes
The effects of climate change affect us all, from people in cities to those that manage land. However, the degree of direct impact will vary and the necessity to implement ‘climate resilient’ strategies is probably more evident to those that manage land and grazing animals.
While many horse owners, don’t necessarily identify themselves as farmers, they should have similar ‘land and animal management’ attitudes. This is mostly due to the fact that horse keeping has moved from broadacre, or rangeland grazing, to the fringes of capital cities and big regional centres.
Often, horse owners don’t come from a farming background and have moved from the city to small acreage lifestyle blocks with the dream of keeping their horses at home.
Even so and irrespective of the amount of land we own, as horse owners, we manage large grazing animals in an ecosystem that needs care.
Ideally, this system should provide sufficient food (grass and fodder) and space for horses to move around in. But in reality, horse owners rely on supplementary feeding because of limited pasture availability or their horse’s dietary requirements.
Extreme climate events pose three major problems for horse owners:
- Pressures on grass availability and increase in land related problems (e.g. erosion, weeds, water logging);
- Increase in feed and land management costs and;
- Increase in disease outbreaks or the horse welfare may be compromised (e.g. due to heat conditions).
These three aspects have a massive impact on our finances, with cases where some horse owners are forced to take a break from owning horses or closing their equine related businesses.
Will you take any action?
The potential impacts of weather extremes on horse owners and equestrian industries are widespread, and there is a need to build more resilience in horse keeping.
This was highlighted in a recently published study1 that examined how horse owners in Australia responded in the short and long term to major weather and climate events.
In the journal Rural Society, together with her colleagues, Kirrilly Thompson (who you will recognise as a regular contributor to Horses and People), reported on the outcome of an online survey taken by sixty nine horse owners in Australia.
The results showed that most horse owners (90%) were affected by major weather/climate event(s) in the last 10–20 years. Four out of five (78%) of these horse owners took action at the time of the event and a similar proportion (80%) had taken actions for the longer term.
But, while most horse owners (86%) had thought about preparations for future events, they had not yet taken any action, due to a lack of time, money, materials, or storage. The other 14% specified they were not considering taking any action to prepare for any future major weather/climate event. Some did not see a need and some were climate change sceptics.
However, 25% of the horse owners were thinking about preparing for future weather events in relation to land care, pasture management and improvement. In addition, 9% were thinking about improving their water management and 16% were considering improving their property’s infrastructure, including sheds to store feed bought in bulk.
This survey showed that almost all participants (93%) perceived a need for further education, research, and government policy on the topic of climate change and how to make horse keeping more resilient to extreme weather events.
Interestingly, these horse owners would not necessarily attend a “climate change” educational initiative, but identified much more with initiatives that focussed on sustainable horse keeping practices, land care, pasture management as well as on improving horse health and welfare.
With or without extreme weather conditions, horse owners are often faced with land and pasture related challenges.
In one of my earlier survey studies2 of 497 horse owners and 3028 horses, I identified that most horse owners (90%) observe one or more pasture-related problems, with weeds, overgrazing, water-logging and compaction being the most prevalent.
There was also a heavy reliance on supplementary feeding with 95% of the horses fed concentrates and 86% conserved forages. This is despite only 41% of the horses being exercised.
The heavy reliance on additional feeding may be a reflection of not having enough pasture availability, but it could also be an industry-driven preference.
By far the major concern for horse owners will be the increase in the cost of feed and hay associated with the challenges of growing fodder and crops in extreme weather conditions.
As horse owners, we can improve our land management and implement drought-proofing strategies to reduce our reliance on buying-in expensive feed and fodder. However, the conventional ‘prescription’ based approach that relies on chemicals and irrigation may not work well in the long term. This is because there are no cure-alls; there is no one solution; we need to take a step back and look at things holistically.
Permaculture and regenerative farming solutions that build resilience
The problems are becoming clear, the good news is so too are the solutions.
Nature offers the ultimate example of a design that is both sustainable and regenerative, so it makes sense to apply natural principles as solutions to many of our current problems.
Understanding and appreciating how systems naturally operate, and combining those systems in intelligent ways to accomplish intended goals, will eventually lead to more sustainability.
Broadly speaking, regenerative farming uses a range of techniques to restore soil and productivity in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Permaculture is a design philosophy, which might be used to inform the regenerative farming.
So, how can we use Permaculture design and regenerative farming practices to our advantageous, especially with the aim to create more resilience to extreme weather events.
It won’t surprise you that most is about planning ahead and setting systems in place before these events happen. While planning and taking action 10 years ago would be have been ideal, now is the second best time!
Moreover, there are many strategies that you can implement on your property that lead to an instantly satisfying result. Let’s focus on drought-proofing strategies.
In Permaculture, the rule is blue (water) before green (pasture) before black (soil). If we want to have more pasture availability and healthy topsoil, you need water first!
Most rainwater is wasted through runoff and evaporation by the sun and wind, with only a small portion actually reaching the roots of the plants. This is why the single most important Permaculture design feature is collecting water on the land.
Every property needs as many as five sources of water (rain, well/bore, dam/pond, surface run off and roof collection). To this you can add earthwork water storage techniques and design them into your property.
With these aspects in mind, we can implement the following drought-proofing strategies:
- Roof collection
In drought-prone countries such Australia, rainwater tanks in residential homes and on farms are common. These tanks can hold thousands of litres of rainwater and may be connected to homes, sheds, garages – anything with a roof!
This may seem an obvious strategy, but have a good look at your current systems.
Do you use all the roof space to your advantage and do you have large enough tanks relative to the collection area?
Are you collecting water, for example, from your horse shelters and using it for animal drinking water? This can be a simple way to reduce the use of your main or household water tanks.
On the internet, you can find various free resources that provide simple equations to figure out the volume of water you’ll get from the size of your roof.
- Rain gardens
The best and cheapest place to store water is in the ground! And these miniature ponds help you do that with little effort.
Rainwater gardens are basically small, hand-dug ponds that temporarily collect pools of rain that eventually reabsorb back into the land.
They also help create a unique microclimate and provide a home for frogs and other beneficial wildlife.
Installing and strategically positioning rainwater gardens/mini-ponds on your property and around your stable area will help collect excess water runoff from roof areas, tanks and swales.
Download the article that explains how to build a rain garden by using this link: https://bit.ly/2WV6WjU
- Dam and pond systems
Going beyond rainwater gardens, medium and large dams or ponds are an excellent way to help collect, hold and distribute water on your land while promoting eco-diversity. But note that installing a medium to large-scale dam or pond requires significant knowledge and investment, and may not be practical for every type of land.
When designing and building dams and pond systems, your aim should be to build an eco-system.
You can irrigate pasture and water your horses and livestock from a dam or pond, but you can also use it to create an aquaculture, raise geese, fish, mitigate drought and create microclimates.
And don’t forget it can be even used as a natural pool to cool of during those hot summer days!
There’s a lot to consider in the function of your dam or pond. Soil compatibility, budget and finding the right team of engineers, consultants and designers are key factors in planning an effective dam or pond system.
Download the Equine Permaculture Design article on Water Management from this link: https://bit.ly/2D2qlIb
- Wells or bores
Accessing underground water is a way of drought-proofing small blocks through to large rural properties. Properly constructed wells and bores should last a lifetime, and they should be looked at as an asset which will add considerable value to your property.
Water bores draw water from underground aquifers and are ideal for irrigating pastures, lawns and plants.
Bores can be used as drinking and/or stock water supply if you test for quality (similar for rain water).
Of course, not all areas will have suitable underground water, so start by talking neighbours and your local drilling company. They will be able to advise whether there are any good bores on nearby properties and give you an idea of whether will find water on your place. Ideally, you want to find water with low salinity (salt content) and with sufficient flow for your desired usage.
Drilling a bore could be an expensive exercise – it is a bit like gambling, you could waste a lot of money for nothing, but if you do hit good water you will feel like you won the lottery (and greatly improve the value of your property at the same time). Do research the feasibility and costing before commencing.
- Swales (water retention berms) & Hügelkultur
Water retention berms and Hügelkultur (no dig/raised or berm gardens) means less water runoff and less water loss — the magic lies in design and planning for each property.
Swales, terrace-style mounds or gardens cascading down slopes are synonymous with permaculture. Designed to help capture water and let it slowly percolate into the ground, a swale can be an invaluable addition in certain landscapes.
A swale system is a non-compacted berm (either on contour or slightly off-contour), that helps collect and feed water into dams, pocket ponds or small little rainwater gardens.
Swales are typically built using a digger or mini-excavator, but small ones can be built by hand. Despite their popularity and mystique, not every type of property needs swales. It is important to understand the process and ask the question: does my farm require swales?
Most people use them to capture lots of water on a dry ridge and to re-establish tree systems on a landscape that was clear cut. But, when I design a property for a client, it’s not always the thing I recommend for everyone, especially because if they aren’t installed properly they’re very costly to fix.
If you are going to do major earthworks it is important to consider hiring a consultant and/or really educate yourself, because you might waste a lot of money if your landscape isn’t conducive.
Soil type matters, slope matters and so to the goals you set for your farm. There’s a lot to consider before deciding to put a swale in.
The bottom line? Swales can be a key component in a successful water harvesting system, but they are not a one-size-fits all. Hire an experienced consultant to determine if a swale makes sense for your land and goals.
Download the Equine Permaculture Design article on Water Management from this link: https://bit.ly/2D2qlIb
- Rethink roads and driveways
Believe it or not, the design of your roads and driveways can have a huge impact on the drought-resistance of your property.
A typical road is designed like a dry creek bed and when it rains, the water just runs down it in a mad rush.
By directing water off of your roads you can capture it into your landscape and help recharge the water table. For example, you can have a swale running parallel with your road.
Also, a gravel or dirt road is better for the environment as it helps your land absorb water faster and won’t pollute rainwater with the petroleum chemicals typically found in asphalt.
- Soil building
Soil building is the least obvious but by far the most valuable water collection strategy. By using Permaculture design techniques designed to build soil, more water can be absorbed, held and made available to plants.
Drought-proofing and making land more resilient and able to withstand hotter temperatures and drier weather, depends on the soil being able to soak-up larger amounts of rainfall in the rainy season.
Remember that the ground is, by far, the best and cheapest place to store water if it acts like a sponge. Building up rich healthy soil that can hold water is an invaluable drought-proofing technique.
To build soil, you have to consider no-till or low-till systems for your pastures, deep heavy mulching and holistic planned rotational grazing.
Read more about renovating damaged pastures: https://bit.ly/2uZX8sW
Low-till or no-till systems focus on building soil fertility and natural weed management techniques to maintain the health and structure of your soil.
In basic terms, holistic-planned grazing is a system of animal grazing that strategically moves herds around a property to allow pasture time to regenerate.
Holistic grazing management has shown to be key in restoring drought-ridden landscapes. Using these farming strategies, you’ll start to build up that topsoil and hummus layer which will really absorb water when it comes down.
Download the 5-Part series All About Soil from this link: https://bit.ly/2UrChhj
- Planting trees
Planting trees is another great drought-proofing solution because trees act as hydrological pumps.
A tree brings moisture and nutrients down from the atmosphere through its leaves and internal transport network into the roots. Then it brings those nutrients back up and out causing clouds and moisture.
Trees also help prevent drought by acting as wind breaks or providing shade which helps reduce evaporation in dams or pond systems.
With proper consideration, you can design tree systems to help shelter your animals from the drying and dehydrating effects of wind.
They also help create those microclimates that hold more water in your land. This especially important around natural waterways such as creeks and rivers, so called riparian areas.
Plants are important too. If you have open land, you want to get some seed down and get plants growing on that landscape because that’s what’s going to hold water and keep it from sheeting off into nowhere.
- Rethink indoor water use
It may seem like a no-brainer, but most of us waste a ton of water indoors. Most of our waste water goes into septic tanks, so simple things like switching to low-flow or composting toilets, not leaving the water running while you’re doing dishes and rethinking appliances can make a world of difference.
For those who wish to take household water conservation a step further, greywater systems are a great way to recycle household wastewater from your sinks, showers, dishwasher, laundry (greywater does not include toilet water) and horse washing bays for use in orchards and wetlands.
Greywater systems are not complicated to install, but you’ll need to check with your local council to see about restrictions.
Climate change and extreme weather events will be an ongoing factor in our lives and for many years to follow!
Like farmers, horse owners who manage land and grass for their animals will need to act proactively, making adaptive changes to safeguard food and fodder supply in the future. However, we should all make an effort to reduce our footprint and find solutions to increase food/fodder security and maintain healthy, productive systems.
Permaculture Design and regenerative farming practices provide principles and strategies that focus on enhancing natural systems to let them do the work for us, like absorbing heavy rain storms with minimal erosion, hydrating the landscape and drought-proofing at the same time.
If you think about water first, pasture abundance and rich healthy soils are a natural progression. After that, grassland systems need to be properly managed so that horses do not overgraze pastures and compact your soils. This is where horse management and rotational grazing are as important in making sure you secure fodder for longer time over the year or even allow you to harvest some for hay making.
Read more about rotational grazing: https://bit.ly/2G3jtLo
Nevertheless, we have to also account for the non-growing seasons and extra pressures of extreme weather events. Therefore, it’s important that you have also a closed and drought-feeding plan in place.
In the next edition will discuss in more detail, strategies covering supplemented feeding options and best management practices for horse owners coping with drought or limited pasture availability.
- Kirrilly Thompson, Larissa Clarkson & Melissa Rebbeck (2018) Too hot to trot? How horse owners in Australia have responded to major weather events, Rural Society, 27:1, 52-65, DOI: 10.1080/10371656.2018.1441854
- Mariette van den Berg, Wendy Y. Brown, Caroline Lee, Geoffrey N. Hinch (2015) Browse-related behaviors of pastured horses in Australia: A survey, Journal of Veterinary Behavior,Volume 10, Issue 1, Pages 48-53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2014.11.001.
This article appears in Horses and People May-June 2019 magazine.