Improving farm dams for livestock also creates habitat hot-spots

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Farm dams scatter our landscapes in their thousands and are an essential source of water for farms and for some wildlife. But dams can be so much more! With a few modifications traditional farm dams can provide cool, clean water for stock, increase native biodiversity, improve farm aesthetics and improve landholder wellbeing.

A typical farm dam with stock access on all sides, obvious pugging of the banks, high sediment and nutrient loads in the water and very little fringing grasses, sedges and reeds.

 

Many farm dams have relatively poor water quality and high evaporation rates, periodically filling with sediment, particularly from stock pressure on the surrounding banks. These dams also support few species of native plants and those which do inhabit farms dams are under pressure from grazing. The low vegetation cover, along with a typically uniform profile of steep banks with no shallow benches, means that the habitat these farm dams are able to provide is usually poor, supporting few native animals.

There are ways to modify your farm dam to improve the quality of water for livestock, extend the life of your dam, as well as providing habitat for a range of wildlife.

One of the key modifications that will improve your dam is to limit how and where stock can access the water. This will ensure stock are not pugging the edges, and increasing input of sediment and nutrients into the dam. This can be done by installing access points to the dam for stock, and fencing off the remainder of the dam. The stock access point should be relatively narrow and steep so stock can easily access the deeper, cooler water they prefer without going too far into the dam and eroding it. The access point should be gravelled to prevent erosion, pugging and sediment entering the dam and the adjacent fences must extend into the dam far enough to prevent stock from getting around them, particularly in summer when water levels are low.

Information provided by Murray Local Land Services District Vet, Eve Hall at a recent farm dam field day identified that water quality can have a major impact on livestock.

“Factors such as water pollution, salinity, and water temperature can significantly reduce water intake. When livestock drink less, feed intake decreases, and this leads to a slump in productivity. Providing access to cool, fresh water will help to optimize weight gain, milk production, and general livestock health” she explained.

Other benefits to livestock health come from improved water quality, with lower salinity, more balanced pH, fewer algal blooms, less faecal contamination, and less liver fluke disease.

Once the dam is fenced native grasses, shrubs and trees can be planted around the edge, particularly in the immediate catchment/runoff area to create a buffer zone to reduce sediment and nutrients entering the dam. Aquatic plants and woody debris can be introduced to the dam to reduce sediment re-suspension from runoff and wind, and to assist with nutrient processing and water oxygenation. Trees and shrubs near the dam will also assist in shading the dam, keeping the water cooler and preventing evaporation.

All of these changes to your farm dam will also create prime habitat for a range of native birds, invertebrates, frogs, reptiles and mammals. Further modifications including installing shallow areas or ‘benches’ in some parts of the edge of the farm will further improve the habitat for a range of wildlife, including wading birds and frogs. Farm dams in good condition have been found to support a number of endangered species, and may even provide potential habitat for threatened fish.

Rehabilitated farm dam with designated stock access point, visible on the other side, allowing native vegetation to establish at the water’s edge and up the dam bank.

 

Many landholders also highlight the benefits to their wellbeing from the improvement to the security of water in dry times, and having a spot of green nature on their farm.

Landholder Vince Ryan from ‘Wirrianda’ near Mullengandra has improved several dams on his property over the years and has noticed many benefits. These include seeing more native birds and reptiles around the dam; clearer, cooler water; and healthier and more productive stock.

“Stock don’t hang around the dams, defecating, pugging the edges and eroding the surrounds” Vince commented. “Stock don’t have to enter too far into the dam to access cool clean water reducing the chances of them getting stuck in dry times”.

With a few simple modifications, traditional farm dams can be transformed from simply a source of water into habitat hot-spots in rural landscapes for native plant and animal species. These improved farm dams also have the benefit of increasing farm productivity and improving aesthetics and wellbeing. Given the number of farm dams in our landscape, the potential to create a mosaic of habitat hot-spots across the landscape may assist with providing much-needed habitat for aquatic and woodland species.


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