by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

In the Northeast, precipitation on the farm could be summed up as too much of a good thing at times or – like in 2020 – too little of a precious resource. That’s why water management is vital for preventing pastures from browning or flooding. Ignoring these extremes can result in lost forage opportunities. Steve Gabriel of Wellspring Forest Farm in Mecklenburg, NY, and Extension specialist of the Cornell Small Farms Program, presented “Water Management for Pasture Grazing Systems” as a recent webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust.

“Water is something we often forget about or we focus on these cool silvopasture systems or grazing systems going and water can pop up on us,” Gabriel said. He produces mushrooms, maple syrup, pastured lamb, duck eggs and nursery stock on his 50 acres, as well as providing farm rentals and educational programs. “Our vision is to farm in the vision of a forest.”

Planting trees and reforesting are part of his plan to manage an agroforestry operation. Even though he’s been working his land for 10 years, Gabriel feels he has a long way to go in rerouting and evenly dispersing water across the farm. He also wants to prevent water movement that contributes to erosion.

But Gabriel sees improvements in other areas on the farm, including increasing organic matter by 5% to 10% in the farm’s heavy, clay soil. The farm’s soil type lends to runoff issues too. “Water will show up and have a hard time getting into the soil,” Gabriel said.

He noted that some people question whether water is an asset or a liability. “I often hear people I work with talk about water as a pain in the butt, especially in cooler climates, where we’re used to rain and even distribution throughout the season,” he said. “When things erode or flood, we see that and not all the benefit water brings day in and day out.”

He believes people should think of water as a valuable resource to channel and support where it’s in line with the natural properties of how water works – letting streams flow but not through areas with infrastructure or prone to erosion.

The water from his land flows north to the St. Lawrence River; however, he’s also concerned about seasonal streams that form in gullies that rapidly flow in rainy seasons and go dry at other times.

“We think of the macro scale and micro scale,” Gabriel said. He’s working hard to turn the gullies into riparian areas, where trees will use water instead of allowing it to damage the farm.

“Walk up your watershed to see the factors you see contributing to downstream,” Gabriel advised.

He said Vermont is seeing an “overall increase in precipitation. Rain is coming in larger events and after that, long periodic dry spells.” It’s not exactly hurricane country, but he wants to prepare for lower-level water events and other extreme weather for the region. He recommended Brad Lancaster’s book “Rainwater Harvesting,” which offers ideas on how to use water as a resource rather than viewing it as a liability.

“We can definitely slow it and spread it but we don’t always have the time to infiltrate it,” Gabriel said. “There’s not one solution, like ‘I’ll dig a pond and that will be the solution.’ That is only one answer. You can move water from areas where it’s too much to areas where it is needed more” – like dry pastures.

Gabriel counts ditches, roads and driveways, rooftops, creeks, ponds, wells and springs as sources. Sinks include soil, vegetation, mulch, ditches, creeks and ponds. Once he identifies sources, he thinks of ways to slow down the water and as many ways as he can of creatively using it.

Using site contouring maps can help property owners understand how water moves on their land. Lines indicate connecting points of equal elevation and a circle is a peak or top of a knoll. An A-frame and laser level can help landowners discover points of equal elevation. By starting at the highest point, landowners can see how water drains downhill throughout their property.

“Do drawing and mapping and figure out the areas most worth your time,” he said. “Figure out ‘How we want to remediate them? Will it be part of the livestock budget to increase forage or an NRCS project?’”

Gabriel bases good water management on walking around, preferably during a rainfall, to see how and where water flows. By prioritizing, farmers can work on the most needful projects first.

Gabriel likes using vegetation and mulch to harvest, slow and store water. By planting buffers such as willow between various areas of the farm, he could later harvest the tree as fodder for animals like sheep or allow it to grow to use as firewood.

“Willow is high in tannin, which supports gut health and reduces parasite load and reduces methane,” Gabriel added.

Installing a rainwater catchment system near his outbuildings has also helped him retain water on the farm for times of drought.

“Roofs are impermeable surfaces that collect a lot of water,” Gabriel said. “Rainwater catchment systems can be designed that are entirely potable. You could drink it … We lived on rainwater for five years.” (It’s important to cover or paint the outside of a storage container to avoid algae from growing in it.)

Swales can also help slow and retain water, as the roots of the trees and plants in the swale can use the water and the land contouring can help slow the water’s flow.

“Water is trying to get back into a natural state and it’s running up against compacted soil, old gullies and the traditional way we’ve been putting the water down into the ditch,” Gabriel said. “A swale is the opposite of a ditch. It turns it on its side and spreads it out. Swale systems make a great planting edition. A great place to have a berm is a great place to plant some trees.”

As a result of such contours, Gabriel has not had water on nearby pathways in nearly a decade. The trees also provide a windbreak and snow barrier. The mulch and organic matter have built up water holding capacity.

“Once you see its effect in a large rain event, you’re convinced,” he said. “The berm is the downslope of it. The sheep graze right over the mound.” He uses hand work to smooth out the slopes, as they’re angled one inch lower every 50 feet.

In areas where structures are too close together, tiled ditches can be helpful, such as between a high tunnel and barn.

While ponds may be helpful, he encouraged farmers to not think of them as a place to dump unwanted water. “They are part of a greater system,” Gabriel said. “It needs to come in at a slower rate and leave at a slower rate. It’s not a bucket you dump your water into.” He views ponds as places to hold water until it can leach out slowly.

To build an effective pond that fits in with a farm’s hydrology, he advised speaking with someone who digs ponds professionally.