Our area normally gets just enough rain to grow food without irrigation, and we also get plenty of sun. So, we usually don't have issues with mud on our homestead.
This year though, we've had both record rainfall and almost daily cloud cover. As a result, I've had to start managing mud in new and creative ways to counter these unexpected conditions.
Managing mud is all new to me, so I am no expert. But necessity has helped me discover some practical methods for managing mud. If you are dealing with similar challenges, I hope this information enables you to find solutions for your homestead!
What is Mud Anyway?
‘What is mud?‘ may seem like a silly question, but one has to understand it first to be able to deal with it. Since mud wasn't something I've encountered much, I had to figure out what mud was before I could plan my strategies to resolve it.
Mud is not just wet soil. Wet soil drains and dries quickly as soon as the source of water goes away. Even when we had 6 inches of rain in a few hours, and my soil became a soppy wet mess for a bit, it never turned into mud.
Mud is something different. It's a mess of lingering muck that is slow to drain and dry, even when the weather improves. It can become stagnant and stinky if not dealt with, while wet soil never has this problem.
What Causes Mud?
Mud happens when three factors are present. First, you must have some dirt. Second, you have some source of excessive water flow such as heavy rain, runoff, or leakage. Third, there must also be some deficiency in either airflow, drainage flow, or sun exposure that prevents dirt from drying.
Dirt + Excess Water + Imperfect Drying Conditions = MUD!
When these three factors occur all at once, mud is almost always the outcome.
Why is it Important to Prevent Mud on the Homestead?
Unfortunately, with all the mud we had this year, I learned first-hand how important it is to manage mud before it becomes a problem. Here are some reasons why it makes sense to anticipate and prevent mud when you can.
Risk of Disease
Mud brings an increased risk of bacterial and fungal pathogens for people, plants, and livestock.
Mud can be an incubation zone for some of the most difficult to battle fungal and bacterial pathogens we face as homesteaders. These pathogens can impact your ability to keep your plants and animals healthy. They can even affect your health.
Here are some of the examples I encountered this year:
- Some of my livestock experienced hoof rot from walking through mud to get to pasture.
- I suffered athletes foot due to wearing neoprene work boots daily to perform my regular chores.
- Several of our perennials ended up with variations of anthracnose that we have never seen before.
Increased Risk of Pesky Pests
What happens if you leave a glass of drinking water out on your counter for a month? Even if you've never actually done this experiment, you can probably guess the answer.
The water gets gross! It'll start to stink. Stuff will start growing on it. Insects will die in it. Other insects will show up to check out the dead ones.
Mud that doesn't dry out quickly is just like that glass of water, only way worse. Mud has all sorts of stuff already in it that a glass of water doesn't. All that stuff can make mud turn rotten in a hurry.
Rotting stuff is a red carpet invite to mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches, and all sorts of other unsavory characters. Preventing mud from turning stagnant is critical to staving off infestations from pesky pests.
Invitation for Accidents to Happen
Mud freezes faster than soil and mulch. I learned that this year when I slipped on a mud slick while walking around our property after a light snow.
Mud also grips. Animals step in it and have difficulty getting out. It can lead to falling or ankle twisting. The same is true for people stepping in mud.
Oh, and, trust me! Trying to push a wheel barrel through the mud is a hospital visit waiting to happen!
Where Is Mud Most Likely to Happen?
Let's face it. Weather is becoming more erratic and practical homesteaders need to be ready for conditions we may not have had to face before.
In case you are new to managing mud, here are some of the most likely places it might show up on your homestead.
- Spots that are too fertile (with too much manure or decaying organic matter) such as feedlots, over-grazed pastures, livestock hang out areas, and around compost piles.
- Areas downhill of erosion zones where dirt, manure, and other materials are likely to accumulate.
- Shady locations such as on the north sides of houses, sheds, and animal shelters.
- Pathways that are not crowned or sloped for proper drainage.
- Unplanned spillways from ponds or rain depressions.
- In the area around gutter outlets, overflow spouts of rain barrels, and on the ground below the eaves of roofs with no gutters.
- Recently tilled or cleared soil or dirt.
- Areas that have been leveled such as around building footings or under walls and fences (if they don't have built-in drainage outlets).
- Level areas that are not continuously planted with mature crops or plants.
- Any combination of the above!
How to Prevent Mud
Luckily, with some simple techniques, you can minimize mud before it becomes a problem.
1. Improve Drainage
Poor drainage is the number one reason why mud happens on the homestead. If water can't flow out of an area, for any reason, that is where you will find mud.
Level surfaces limit flow. For example, we leveled an area to build a patio. The first time it rained, that patio became a swimming pool. That's when we figured out that we needed to add a few drains and some gentle sloping to move water off the patio during downpours.
There are a lot of good ways to improve drainage. In areas where you can easily dig, consider these methods.
- Crown paths so water flows to the sides similar to the way roads are designed.
- Make swales or ditches to catch and divert water away from mud zones.
- Convert mud zones into ponds or rain depressions to make use of those natural tendencies.
If digging is not an option, consider these ideas.
- Install gravel beds, which works well outside livestock shelters.
- Implement “French Drains” to divert water to lower levels.
- Mulch with highly absorbent materials such as wood chips.
- Hardscape extreme problem areas and implement plumbed drainage solutions.
2. Alter Soil Structure
Clay and silt are the two kinds of soil most likely to promote poor drainage. Altering your soil structure by making soils sandy or loamy, can minimize the risk of soil becoming muddy.
Adding several inches of compost to gardens annually or incorporating sand into heavy clay soils can improve the structure. This can lead to more water-holding capacity and drainage.
3. Never Allow Bare Soil
All those plants we call weeds are nature's way of keeping bare soil protected. They act as a living mulch to protect and improve soil structure and help prevent mud and erosion.
In our gardens and our pastures, we often have times when our fields are bare when we seed new plants. This makes our land extremely vulnerable to erosion and mud-making at times.
By mulching the soil around seedlings and growing cover crops during off-seasons, we can keep improving our soil and limit the risks of creating mud by accident.
4. Practice Good Pasture Management
Livestock can be tough on pastures. Over-grazing and compaction can quickly degrade good pasture land into a dirty, muddy mess.
Move animals often. Mulch and re-seed as necessary to prevent degradation. Aerate and keyline plow at prescribed intervals to avoid a run-off.
5. Incorporate Managing Mud into your Planning
Everything we do on our homestead has an impact on the way water, air, sun, and wind move through our landscape. This, in turn, impacts the drainage and drying capacity of our soil.
If you put up a coop in a grassy area, rain that used to soak into that ground will run off the roof and add more moisture to areas outside the roof line. For every square foot of roofline, you will end up with an extra 0.62 gallons of water per inch of rain, re-directing to the area around your coop.
For a 10 x 10 foot coop, every 1 inch of rain means 62 extra gallons of water running off that roof. Without a mud management plan, that additional rain flow can quickly become a mud and flood nightmare.
Don't Be a Stick in the Mud!
Just like our environment, all homesteads are active places where things are continually changing. So, you may still have to navigate some muddy messes even with proper planning and practices. Being ready with a pile of mulch or a few bales of straw can help you through potentially sticky situations until you can find permanent answers.
Luckily, as long as you aren't one of those “stuck in the mud” people who refuse to meet challenges with creative solutions, I know you can find ways to manage mud on your homestead!