Land Use Planning on the Homestead

January 1st, 2011 by Kim

Happy New Year to all and welcome to Hope Refuge Farm in 2011!  If you’re a new visitor to our site, we hope you find what you’re looking for.  We have some good information for getting started with a family milk cow here in the blog.  You can find previous articles at right by category, or just flip through the archive month by month.  If you want to check out our animals, go to the herdbook & get to know everyone.  We’d love for you to drop us a line to let us know you stopped by & what you think.  Enjoy!

Our Christmas snow makes the contour of the hillside stand out better.

The Homestead Land Use Plan

It’s that time of year again when we evaluate the year behind us and make resolutions for the year ahead.  Perhaps for you also, some of these resolutions involve getting things done on your family farmstead.  These cold winter months are a good time to look over your property & evaluate things, then make a “master plan” for how you can best use your land.  Having a good land use plan can help eliminate the headache of undoing, moving or re-doing things in the future.  For instance, when we first started developing our farm, we decided to plant fruit trees on a nice, large, open field at the top of the hill.  Then a couple years later when we added cows to the picture and needed more pasture, we had to move the trees so we could reclaim the prime pasture area.  It was a big setback for the young trees and a lot of work for us that could’ve been prevented if we had thought through things more thoroughly before we started.  So let’s get started & walk through some of the basics of developing a land use plan.

My photocopy enlargement of online satellite images of our farm - good for drawing, thinking & planning.

Take a Look at What You’ve Got

First, you need to know what you’re starting with.  This may be a no-brainer if you live in the midwest & your entire property is totally flat & open, but for others like us it can be a bit of a challenge.  Here on the edge of the Kentucky Appalachians we don’t have much flat or open land and it can be difficult to tell what might be usable.  Modern technology offers help in the form of online satellite or USGS images and GPS units for mapping and measuring your property.  Just keep in mind that with horizontally challenged land, these tools will underestimate the actual surface area of your hillsides.  When looking at contour, I find it easier to explore & evaluate the lay of the land in the winter with the leaves off the trees and underbrush & weeds knocked down.  A light layer of snow on the ground also makes the lines of the hillsides stand out more.  So what are you looking for?  Here are some things to make note of:  natural water sources, natural run-off/drainage channels, erosion, high & low spots, trees and wooded areas, south or north facing slopes, level areas not currently in use that could be, and proximity of all those to current buildings & land that’s in use. 

The "bowl" with the little pond in the foreground & overflow ditch on left, which runs past the cow barn.

Our home came with an enormous, flat front yard, and there are times of year when the cows stand in their pasture across the driveway gazing hopefully at that green lawn, which the boys have to mow.  Then said hopefully gazing cows may get several garden-cart-loads of fresh grass clippings….inefficient feeding, but it makes them quite happy.  Their pasture is backed by a nice “bowl” of wooded hillside that connects to the upper, prime pasture.  That bowl has some gently sloped areas that could be cleared out and one major run-off ravine with a small pond at the bottom.  We found out that the pond was almost completely silted in during this summer’s dry spell, so Jeff dug it out again, but we obviously have some erosion problems on the hill.

Looking up the ravine in the bowl.

You’ll also want to take an inventory of your animals, and decide whether or not you have enough pasture and adequate shelter & facilities.  Garden size & placement should be considered, as well as any other plantings such as small fruits/orchard.  Determine for certain where utilities run underground and where your septic tank & drainage field are, especially if you weren’t the one who had them put in.  On our previous property, we were told where the owner thought the septic system was, and then found out he was wrong when Jeff dropped the tractor in the tank doing some dirt-moving.  It was an old metal tank, which we hadn’t known was even a possibility.  It had rusted through and was around the corner of the house from where we thought it was.  Oops!

The house & cow barn on opposite sides of the drive. Most of the expansive front yard will be fenced for pasture.

Decide What You Want

Now bring out the wish lists.  What do you want your homestead to look like?  Do you need a bigger garden?  Does it need fenced to keep out the deer?  Would you like to have an orchard full of fruits somewhere?  What about that new barn you’ve been dreaming about?  Do you need utilities in any of the outbuildings?  Do you want to add more animals or do you need to downsize a herd?  Try to make a definite plan for any new species you want to add to your menagerie in the future, as it could influence other decisions, like type of fencing you need, etc.  Do you want to open up new land?  What about all this we’re reading about riparian strips & run-off, insectaries for beneficials, and rotational grazing?  How can you keep the cows out of the creek on hot, summer days?  Right now, some of the major things we need to work on here are drainage, run-off & erosion issues, and we desperately need more land put in pasture.  Beyond that, I would love to get the raised beds in the garden finished & get it all safely fenced.  And I really want finishing touches & electric done in the chicken coop/orchard shed, and get more fruit trees to finish the orchard planting.

My flock of laying hens & replacement pullets enjoying their orchard surroundings, coop/shed in the background.

See How It Fits

Now it’s time to put the puzzle together, something you’ll need to take your time doing.  Be ready to think creatively, to be open-minded, and to settle for some compromises.  We found that having a printout of a bird’s eye view of our property was helpful for seeing the big picture.  These can be obtained on sites such as http://www.satelliteviews.net/my-house.htm.  You can identify or draw already existing buildings, lanes, fences, ponds, etc., and make note of problem areas.  Look at your remaining space and how it relates to everything else, on paper & in real life, as you decide where new additions will fit best.  Look for places along creeks & ponds where you can leave native plants grow undisturbed between the water & your pastures.  These will not only help prevent nutrient run-off, but will also be natural habitat for beneficial insects, birds, and such. 

The boys return, Hannah & friend Daniel in tow, from feeding in the upper pasture, seen in the background above their heads. Yikes!! We need A LOT of gravel on that lane!

Do a mental walk-through, figuring out where & how feeding and other chores will need to be done, especially in freezing winter weather.  How far do you really want to walk to collect eggs or feed the horses?  Are you really going to milk the cow in an open shed…in freezing, blowing rain?  What will you have to do to keep water in liquid form for everyone?  Play with different ideas for different locations, and go outside to do a literal walk-thru to make sure things will be workable for you.

Our Puzzle

So how did the Hope Refuge Farm puzzle fit together?  We moved those little fruit trees to a hard-to-use corner inside the curve of the lane up the hill, fenced them in & built a little shed with attached chicken coop and water collection tank.  So now the hens live in the orchard in what will hopefully prove to be a symbiotic relationship, of sorts, with the fruit trees.  It’s not a very long walk from the house & cow barn, but it seems long when carrying a full 3 gallon waterer in the winter.  The plan is to get electric to the coop for lights & a warmer to keep the water jug from freezing. 

I've met up with Keira in an area of the bowl that we'll clear for use. Joel has already had some fun cutting down some of the smaller trees.

All the open land we have is fenced as pasture for the cows & horses, although we’re not finished with the rotational paddock divider fencing yet.  Intensive, rotational grazing with limited tromping of water sources is our goal.   The cow barn is directly across the driveway from the house, convenient for morning milking.  With the fridge & sink in the parlor, it also serves as a handy storage place for excess eggs & milk, Thanksgiving dinner extras, etc, and serves quite well as a protected place for “processing” the meat chickens.  Unfortunately, the one thing we didn’t pay attention to before we built it, was the fact that we were choosing a low spot in front of a large hill, and I’ve ended up with a flooded parlor many times.  That entire pasture paddock ends up a muddy mess and desperately needs regraded, with a good drainage swale and work on the existing drainage ditch from the pond around the end of the barn. 

The greenhouse & garden area, with horse barn in back. Jeff built a pretty bridge over the ditch, and some nice, simple chicken tractors that fit right over the raised garden beds. We use these pens for raising young birds or keeping cocks separate.

That huge front yard is in the beginning stages of being fenced as another pasture paddock, which I’m sure will be the cause of much rejoicing among our sons & the cows.  We’ve also identified several wooded hillside areas that aren’t too steep that we could clear for additional pasture in the future.  Out back, the greenhouse sits about halfway between the house & the new horse barn, which replaces the old, dilapidated one.  The area between the house & greenhouse is all designated as “garden”, and needs a nice fence.  I envision a nice patio surrounded by kitchen herb garden & edible landscaping, with the raised veggie beds terraced on the south facing slope below the greenhouse.  It’s beautiful in my mind….convenient to the kitchen & a nice place to spend summer evenings, unfortunately in reality it’s still a frustrating weedy mess.  Oh well, it all takes time.  But this puzzle makes a lovely picture, and I’m glad it’s all fitting together so nicely, with room to grow.

I’m certainly no expert, but hopefully this bit of our experience can be helpful to you as you try to make the best use of your land.  Let’s be thankful for what we’ve been blessed with and endeavor to be good stewards of it.  Best wishes to you for a bountiful New Year!

One Response to “Land Use Planning on the Homestead”

  1. Susan Lea Says:

    Thanks for the helpful thoughts. We’re doing some planning, too, although I’m trying to wait until we finish our six weeks of daily obligatory 1 hour of riding for Brandy’s rehab on Jan. 19 and then close on our old house on Jan. 31. February will be planning month! I have such lovely plans in my head! I wonder how many of them will ever become reality? Well, two years ago the chickens were an idea that Herb wasn’t wild about–and even I hadn’t thought of a cow yet! So I guess we’re not doing too badly!

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