Using Sacrifice Areas to Protect Pastures

Author: Dr. Susan Kerr, WSU NW Regional Livestock and Dairy Extension Specialist

Publish Date: Winter 2016

Ah, winter. In our corner of the world, that means it is mud season. Just because it is muddy out there doesn’t mean your animals have to be knee-deep in it for the next six months. By creating a designated place for them to spend the winter, you will reduce soil compaction, protect water quality, promote forage health, reduce long-term feeding costs, and reduce livestock health issues. Let’s investigate how and why.

Mud = Stress
We’ve all driven past animals that look like they are swimming in mud. Mud is a stressor for livestock, especially young stock: they are perpetually cold and wet, and energy is sapped from them as they expend more calories just to stay warm. Mud can be a source of infection as well, be it mastitis, navels, or hooves. Livestock can even experience soft tissue or joint injuries as they struggle to move through deep mud.

Why Sacrifice Areas?
Is mud inevitable in our area? NO, as depicted in numerous “before and after” photo series. As is usually the case, wise planning and thorough preparation can minimize or eliminate this problem. The use of sacrifice areas confines livestock to areas that have been prepared for concentrated livestock impact for an extended time, protecting more sensitive areas from negative effects of livestock activity. Animal impact at inappropriate times can damage soil profiles and health, creating irregular “pugged” areas (Photo 1), compaction, and death of desired plants (Photo 2).

Siting Sacrifice Areas
What areas make the best sacrifice areas? The top of inclined land, sandy or rocky areas, and naturally dry or well-drained areas make good choices, as long as they are safe for livestock. These same areas can make good temporary winter exercise areas if the soil is frozen or at least not sodden and susceptible to damage from livestock hooves. Sacrifice areas should not be located in low spots, flood-prone areas, wetlands, or near ponds or waterways. They should also include shelter adequate for the number of animals in the sacrifice area.

The best sacrifice area would have adequate forage cover 365 days of the year, which would promote soil retention and reduce water run-off. Prolonged animal impact on a confined area make this difficult, however, hence the need for special groundcover and footing materials.

What Materials Are Needed?
Certain kinds of footing material should be brought in if the sacrifice area you have chosen could become muddy due to prolonged animal impact. The most common options are compared and contrasted in Table 1. Other materials may be available in different locales and relative prices may vary. Regardless, acceptable footing material should allow excellent drainage while remaining dry itself, be readily available and inexpensive, allow safe movement, and create no risk to livestock.

Further Considerations
How much space is required for a sacrifice area? This question earns the famous “it depends” response. The size of a sacrifice area depends on the number of animals to be contained and their ages and activity levels. Younger animals will typically be more active and need adequate space to display normal behavior; they may damage fences or injure themselves if the sacrifice area is too small. Recommended outdoor space requirements for various livestock species under different management systems are available from multiple sources, such as the referenced MidWest Plan Service.

The ability of sacrifice areas to protect water quality will be greatly enhanced by the use of vegetative “buffer zones” around the livestock confinement area. This vegetation will slow the rate of water passage over soil and help retain more nutrients.

Additional Uses of Sacrifice Areas
Once established, sacrifice areas can be used for other purposes:

  • Containing livestock in non-grassy areas to re-duce intake of parasite larvae
  • Allowing time for pasture re-growth to at least 6” before regrazing during the “summer slump” 
  • Temporarily isolating animals in heat, injured, or with other reasons to be confined and separated from herd
  • Dry-lotting horses that overeat if allowed to consume pasture ad lib
  • Shelter during inclement weather

Drain the Rain
Installing gutters and downspouts can direct thousands of gallons of clean rainwater away from sacrifice areas and into more appropriate areas such as vacant pasture, ponds, streams, or wetlands. Water can also be captured in rain barrels and used elsewhere on the property. Reducing the amount of water entering a sacrifice area reduces the drainage challenge to this area and reduces contamination of run-off with animal wastes. Drains, swales, and berms can divert water way from buildings or perpetually-wet areas and toward areas with better drainage or water-storing capacity, increasing the effectiveness and lifespan of the footing material used.

Keep It Safe
Special attention must be paid to sacrifice area fencing because animals will be contained for an extended time. Fencing should be visibly intimidating and include at least one electric wire so animals respect it. The sacrifice area must pose no threat to animals, such as junk, poisonous plants, holes, garbage, farm equipment, etc. Animals in sacrifice areas—especially horses—still need exercise. Horses can be ridden or lunged, and all species can be turned out on the hard-frozen ground when plants are dormant. When it is time for spring turn-out, slowly increase grazing time (10 to 30 minutes initially, slowly adding more each day) to prevent gastrointestinal problems. As always, never graze dormant or growing forage below 3” or next spring’s energy reserves will be gone and pasture regrowth dramatically diminished.

What Are the Benefits of Sacrifice Areas?
As detailed in Table 2 and depicted visually in Figure 1, confining animals to sacrifice areas addresses all four aspects of sustainable livestock production: attention to environmental, financial, societal, and animal welfare issues.

Help Them Help You
Your Conservation District and/or Natural Resources Conservation District have cost-sharing programs that can help you create sacrifice areas. Funding may be available for gutters, drains, swales, sacrifice area footing, fencing, off-site watering, rain barrels, berms, or other best practices that create and support an effective sacrifice area.

Additional Reading

Creating & Using a Sacrifice Area for Horses: Your Start to Good Pasture Management! Alayne Blickle, Horses for Clean Water

Heavy Use Areas for Livestock, Skagit Conservation District:

Reduce Mud & Keep Water Clean: Sacrifice Areas, WSU Clark Co. Extension Living on the Land Series

Creating a Sacrifice Area, King Conservation District.

MidWest Plan Service: Livestock Operations