Keeping livestock during the muddy season is true test of mettle. You don’t want to see your pastures get torn up by your cattle’s, horses’ and sheep’s hooves, but you don’t want them to spend all of their time indoors either. There’s a happy medium here, and it’s found in sacrifice areas.
You most often read about sacrifice areas in relation to horse keeping because horses’ hooves and grazing habits are hard on pastures. Also a called dry lot, barnyard or corral, a sacrifice area is useful—necessary, even—for any livestock. There are times of the year that you don’t want your animals grazing certain grasses for health or pasture-establishment reasons. When the ground is sopping wet, keeping animals from shredding the sod and compacting the soil will keep your pastures’ forages in better condition.
And if you’re practicing rotational grazing—you are practicing rotational grazing, aren’t you?—you sometimes need to keep grazing animals off of your pasture until the forage has recovered enough for regrazing, particularly during dry or hot weather. In each of these situations, you need an area to “sacrifice,” knowing you will never have productive forage here, for the greater good of your land.
Your sacrifice area doesn’t need to be large—20 by 20 feet per horse is the standard—but it does need to be in the right location with good drainage, quality fencing and the right footing. Here are six steps to building a sacrifice area for your farm.
1. Choose The Location
You are putting your animals in a sacrifice area partly to keep them out of the mud—as much as possible during the wet season, anyway—so pick a spot on high ground, or at least a spot that water drains away from. The Snohomish (Wash.) Conservation District suggests:
“Pick a location adjacent to the barn, manure storage and feeding area to make it easier to care for livestock and manage the sacrifice area. Avoid locating the sacrifice area near wetland areas and other surface water flows to reduce potential impacts to these areas.”
2. Choose The Fencing
While your animals are being kept in the sacrifice area, you need to pay extra close attention to their needs. Adequate feed, forage and water are important. They’re being kept in this smaller space, which they’re probably not used to, so they could get bored or frisky and test their boundaries.
This is where quality fencing also comes into play. If you have a solid boundary, such as wood-plank fencing or woven-wire fencing, you might run an electric wire around the inside top to prevent animals from resting or pushing on it.
3. Build The Footing
The best sacrifice areas aren’t just former pastureland that’s being thrown into destruction. A great sacrifice area will have well-drained footing built up to reduce the mud that your animals will inevitably end up standing in. This is, of course, is much more expensive than just letting your animals hang out in a small section of pasture all winter.
According to Washington State University Extension, you should ask four questions when considering footing for a sacrifice area:
- Is it a suitable surface for my animals and property?
- Is it a safe surface for my animals to run, stand and lay down on?
- Can I easily pick manure from the footing material?
- What is the availability and cost?
Common sacrifice-area footing types include wood chips, sand, gravel and geotextile fabric.
4. Divert Water Wherever Possible.
Building your sacrifice area on higher ground and building up the footing will go far in helping the space to shed water. Go one step further and prevent rainwater from washing off of buildings and into the sacrifice area. Rain gutters that direct water to a water trough or a rain barrel are ideal. Second to that would be gutters that simply direct water out of the sacrifice area.
5. Build A Buffer Strip
Runoff from the sacrifice area can be of some concern if the area is near a stream, pond or other groundwater source. Horses for Clean Water, a nonprofit for environmentally sensitive horse keeping, recommends a 25-foot-wide vegetative buffer surrounding a sacrifice area.
6. Maintain The Area
Sacrifice areas are designed to help keep your pastures healthy, yet they still require some attention themselves. Because you’re confining livestock to an area smaller than where they normally live, you need to pick up after them. According to the Michigan State University Extension:
“Removing manure on a regular basis will aid with parasite and potentially odor control. Frequency of manure removal will depend on concentration of [animals] housed in the lot.”
Depending on the footing you choose, you may need to add more or pack it down as needed. Wood chips, in particular, will decompose, especially with the addition of manure and urine.
Your conservation district, cooperative extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service can help you plan a sacrifice area for your livestock. There could even be NRCS grant money available for related conservation projects on the farm.
Once you have a sacrifice area constructed and you establish a plan for using it during very wet or very dry seasons, you should see positive changes to your pastures and forage health. These areas are not meant for everyday livestock keeping by any means, but your farm’s overall forage profile will be better off when you have the ability to give pastures a break now and then.