It’s getting to be that time of year we all dread, when snow melts and early spring rains collide. It’s mud time on the farm.
Keeping animals clean and dry with sticky muck all around feels like an uphill battle. But you don’t have to give in and wait for the heat of summer to solve the problem.
Mud is not only unsightly and annoying, it carries dangerous pathogens and fungi that can cause:
- foot rot
- dirty udders and feathers
- skin infections (such as rain scald)
- bacterial infections in newborn animals
Mud can also cause slips, falls and leg injuries around the farm. There are several strategies you can employ. Here are our top tips.
1. Protect Soil Structure
Don’t turn animals out on pasture or drive vehicles over unpaved areas when the ground is wet. Doing so can damage soil structure.
According to Clemson University’s Extension Services, the standing pressure of humans is 14 pounds per square inch (psi); cattle and horses is 27 pounds psi and tractors are 175 psi. Water won’t filter through compacted soil, and you’ll soon have mud.
In addition, hoof prints and tire tracks can trap water. Better to take the time to hand-walk animals or turn them out into “sacrifice paddock”, which is a non-grazing area of your farm given over to animals. Clemson University recommends 900 to 1500 square feet per large animal.
If you must turn out your animals, rotate smaller groups throughout the day, and place hay feeders and temporary watering troughs in several places to prevent animals from milling around and breaking up the soil.
2. Go Organic
Sop up existing farm mud and water with any sort of organic material. Not only will it keep your animals clean, organic matter will add good things back to the soil.
You can use softwood chips or shavings, straw, dried grass clippings, pine straw, dried leaves, shredded corn stalks and leftover hay. If you have chickens, they will happily spread the material around as they scratch through to find seeds and insects.
Newspaper is also a good choice, too (as long as it’s newsprint and not the glossy paper used for magazines and circulars). You can either shred it or put it down as is. The soy-based ink most printers use breaks down easily.
Newsprint isn’t the most attractive choice, but it will get the job done.
3. Stay Soft
If you do use wood chips (many lumber mills and tree trimming services are happy to give you as much as you want), make sure you know what you’re getting. Soft wood species, such as pine, is the safest choice.
Mold spores can form in hardwood chippings left indoors, which can lead to respiratory diseases, such as Aspergillosis in chickens.
Do not accept wood chips from any part of cherry or black locust trees. Wilted leafs and seeds from the cherry tree are toxic to animals if they eat them. Black locust is typically found in the more colder more mountainous type areas. All parts are of the black locust can be toxic to livestock, so it should be avoided.
Oak or walnut chips are harmful to horses, as they can build their own heat and cause the hoof to get hot. Black walnut shavings have a toxin in them that is poisonous to horses if ingested.
4. Permanent Solutions
You can go a more permanent route by using loose gravel or sand. This will double the soil’s ability to withstand traffic.
Compacted sand and gravel can eve triple it.
Place organic matter or gravel and sand around heavy use areas, such as feeding stations and water troughs, at the base of hills and on slopes, and on vehicle pathways.
5. Safe Cleaning
Cleaning caked-on mud from an animal—especially a farm animal—is tricky business. Brushing may seem the logical method, but vigorous brushing can cause tiny scratches in the skin and sweep the mud into it. This sets up infections.
Instead, soak a towel in hot water, wring it out and lay it onto the muddy patch for a minute or so. This will “steam” the dirt off.
Once the coat is dry, you can groom the animal’s coat gently with a soft brush.
6. Mind the Lower Extremities
Pay close attention to hooves and claws. During wet weather, keep hooves trimmed to eliminate areas that can trap mud and cause hoof rot and thrush. Treat afflicted feet with hoof rot treatment, or ask your farrier or veterinarian for advice.
Keep an eye on heels, fetlocks and pasterns for a bacterial and fungal condition called “scratches” (also called “cracked heels” or “mud fever”), which creates raised clustered scabs. Especially monitor animals with long fetlock hair, such as draft horses, that can hold moisture.
To treat scratches, carefully clip hair away from the infection and wash gently with antibacterial or antifungal shampoo, following the instructions carefully. Pat dry and then apply a topical treatment.
Ulcerative pododermatitis is a bacterial infection that afflicts birds (bumblefoot) and rabbits (sore hocks). A scratch or wound on the bottom of the claw is susceptible to bacterial pathogens in the mud. Treatments include soaking the foot in Epsom salts, draining the wound, applying topical medication.
Again, ask your veterinarian for advice.
Scratches and foot fungus are hard to cure and can cause pain and lameness, so keeping the legs clean of mud is important.
7. Mud Happens—Deal With It
Mud is a factor of life for all farmers. Take a few moments to identify your problem places, and come up with a plan of action for next year.
Professional Help and Grants
Mud is terrible for the environment because damaged soil allows polluted runoff into waterways (called nonpoint source pollution).
The National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) offers advice at no charge by sending out a local conservation officer to your farm to help you make a heavy use and conservation plan. You may also quality for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), which improves farms and protects the environment.
I went through this program several years ago, and received financial and technical assistance to install a sacrifice paddock, drains, pads for heavy use areas and pasture water pumps.