Woodchip Barnyard Project
Why the need to stabilize cattle holding areas?
For farms that turn animals outside, there are nearly always some periods during the year when supplemental feed must be provided because pasture is not available. This presents a challenge because it doesn’t take long for penned livestock to turn an area to mud – a stress recipe for animals, farmers and the environment. That is why the conservation district is constantly planning improvements with farmers to better manage livestock and the natural resources they depend on – soil, water, air, plants and wildlife.
Why Wood Chips?
The traditional solution is concrete because it does an excellent job of containing nutrients and taking abuse. Concrete is costly, and farmers often feel they do not want their livestock confined strictly to concrete for extended time. Wood chips provide an alternative surface to hard concrete, nutrients are still captured, and cost may be lower. Wood chips have been used for this purpose in European countries for decades, but very little in the US.
How does it stay dry?
Drainage is the key - moving water away from where animals are. The wood chip area is uncovered and open to the elements. The wood chips are placed over a drainage collection system. The design used at Dewy Meadows Farm includes a native, clay soil, sloping subgrade with perforated pipes spaced 10 feet apart. Over the pipe is 18 inches of clean, AASHTO #57 stone and then 12 inches of screened (fines removed) hard wood chips – the same chips often used in industrial size heating systems. The wood chips and stone are very well drained, keeping the surface relatively dry. All the drainage that passes through the system can then be collected at the end of a pipe and treated in several ways. At Dewy Meadows Farm it is pumped to an irrigation sprinkler in the pasture. Livestock are not fed or watered on the wood chips. Much of the manure is deposited where livestock eat. The wood chip surface would not withstand this volume of manure. There must be an adjacent area with a harder surface where animals are fed and watered. Manure can then be regularly collected from the feeding area and stored, or field applied as appropriate. Soiled wood chips on the surface (3-4”) are removed seasonally for composting and replaced with new wood chips.
How was it funded?
In 2018, PA NRCS funded a project through its Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) to implement a wood chip surface heavy use area protection at Dewy Meadows Farm in Bradford County, Pennsylvania.
Questions being evaluated include:
Why the need for no-till gardening?
Promotes natural aeration and drainage, saves water by reducing evaporation, reduces need to weed which saves time and energy, it also helps build the earthworm population and most importantly reduces soil erosion.
How to Get Started
Start with a good layout. Plan the size of bed areas that you can comfortably reach into from an isle way. Lay these out so that you can minimize foot traffic in the bed area. Maintain permanent isle ways for repeated foot traffic. One example layout is 4 feet wide beds approximately 30 feet long with 18-inch-wide isle ways between each bed. This allows you to reach 2 feet of your bed area from either side.
With a good layout, you are now ready to do your first gardening of the season! For a modest size garden this preparation may take one to two hours. If this is a new location, you can do this right on top of the grass. If you can get some manure or compost form a local farm, lay down a healthy layer in the bed area (if you don’t have access to manure, don’t worry, you can still build soil). Next, place a minimum of 12 inches of mulch over the bed areas. Add a slightly thinner layer of mulch to the isle ways which will be the start of a weed barrier next spring. Next, go inside and hibernate for the winter, you’re done! The mulch will maintain higher soil temperatures for biological activity through the winter. You may be surprised at soil conditions for planting come spring time!
What to Use for Mulch
Many common materials can be used for mulches including; hay, grass clippings, newspaper, leaves, compost, straw, seaweed (good luck finding that around Bradford County) or other organic materials.
Planting in the Spring
Pull back the mulch and dig into the surface just enough to set the plant. The depth of the mulch can only be a few inches thick when seedlings are first planted, then added in layers as plants grow. Pull mulch away from the stems of tomatoes, peppers and long stemmed plants.