Small Acreage Management:

Frequently Asked Questions

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Q. Who are Small Acreage Landowners?

A. According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, small farms account for about 48 percent of total farm and ranchland in the US. As owners of the bulk of farm property, it is imperative that small acreage landowners manage their natural resources for a sustainable agricultural future. Small acreage landowners in Colorado own 2 to 100 acres and may be lifestyle farmers who work outside the home; retired operators; or operators of a small farm or ranch.

Q. I am thinking of buying a small acreage property. What things should I consider before buying?

A.

  1. The wind blows seasonally in some areas and may be issue to some people. Be prepared to deal with snow drifts and heavy winds.
  2. Determine where your well head is located. Make sure it is properly sealed. To protect water quality, animal corrals and gas tanks should be at least 100 feet down hill from the well. The septic tank should be at least 50 feet from the well.
  3. Have your water tested and analyze the results. Remember that water quality will not only have an effect on your health, but also the health of irrigated landscapes and gardens.
  4. Consider road closures in the winter and how that may affect your commute to work.
  5. Identify adjacent property uses and owners and pinpoint any unfavorable property uses, such as landfills, near the property.
  6. Learn water access and water regulations for the property. If you have to dig a well contact the Water Engineer’s office for a permit. If there is an existing well on the property, find out if it is a restricted use well. Many rural wells are designated household-use-only which means water can be used only within the home, with no outside watering, including gardens and livestock uses.
  7. Consider the radon levels within the house. Radon is a colorless and orderless gas from soil or bedrock. Long term exposure to high levels of radon may cause lung cancer. Have the radon levels checked and install proper ventilation if needed.
  8. An environmental audit should be done if the property is on or near an abandoned coal mine workings or historic metal mining area. Contact the Colorado Division of Minerals and Geology, Colorado Geologic Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Inactive Mine Reclamation Program of the Division of Minerals and Geology for more information.

Q. What is considered a "range improvement"?

A. "Range improvement" is an umbrella term for practices designed to increase forage production and improve grazing distribution while protecting the range resource. Examples are cross-fencing to allow rotational grazing, water development, range reseeding, and brush and weed control. It is important to remember that costs usually are paid up front, but returns are received over the life of the project--thus, returns should be discounted over time to arrive at the true cost/benefit and more accurately predict whether proposed improvements will pay for themselves.

Q. Where can one find information about the multi-year drought affecting Colorado's weather and water availability?

A. A multi-year drought cycle occurs about every twenty years in Colorado. During the last several years, the western states have been experiencing snow pack and precipitation. Everyone can contribute to water conservation by reducing personal water use at home and on landscapes. During drought conditions everyone has an increased responsibility to use water appropriately. For more information on drought, weather and resources on water conservation, animal care, gardening, turf management and other drought-related conditions, see the Web site, Drought-ColoState and the Colorado Climate Center Drought Resources.

Q. How do small-acreage landowners determine their available irrigation water?

A. There is no one answer for how to determine the available irrigation water for a small acreage. If there is ditch water running through the property, the amount of irrigation water depends on the number of shares that are owned, the allocation per share, and whether or not the ditch delivers the full quota for the year. Also, the property's location on the ditch may affect when the water is available. To find out water availability, the landowner needs to contact the ditch company and ask for specific details on the property location and ditch. If ground water is pumped from a well, the amount available is the well discharge multiplied by time of pumping. It is important to contact the groundwater information desk at the Colorado Division of Water Resources to find out the details of a specific well decree. In dry years, the water table may drop below the pump intake and a person may not be able to irrigate.

Q. Is there a quick guide to water terms used in reference to drought?

A. To help with water terminology and definitions of terms related to drought, see fact sheet Glossary of Water Terminology.

Q. Why would the Colorado Division of Water Resources issue a household-use only permit to one neighbor while the other neighbors have a permit that allows livestock water?

A. The most likely reason one home has a household-use only permit and the other has a domestic and livestock water permit is that the neighbor's well was installed prior to 1972 and the livestock use was already in existence. Also, there are many exceptions to the general rules for groundwater appropriation, including designated ground water basins in the Front Range (Denver Basin) and eastern Colorado. The Colorado Ground Water Commission administers water use in the designated basins.

Q. What suggestions are there for redesigning and "livening up" a small acreage of grass that won't use a lot of water--and could even be non-irrigated?

A. Some suggestions for redesigning a turf area into an area that would require little or no water would be revegetation using some native forbes to add seasonal interest. Some recommended plants include:

  • Winterfat (Ceratoides lanata), has fluffy, white cotton stalks that arc from its base.
  • Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus sp.), available in blue stems, green stems, dwarf and tall.
  • Snakeweed (Gitierrza sarothrae), only 6-10 inches tall for a diminutive rabbitbrush effect.
  • Native snowberry (Symphoricarpos) can be found creeping along ditches in rural areas; its 12-inch spreading colony of bluegreen leaves will sport unusual white berries by late summer after its tiny pink blooms fade.

Once established, all of these plants can be allowed to roam to diversify a large dryland area in the landscape. Another idea is use of lavender--see this Web site: Lavender massed in Xeriscapes.

Q. What is a suggested prairie-grass mixture that could be used to seed a small acreage?

A. The prairie grasses recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service for eastern Colorado are: Slender wheatgrass, 0 to 10% of the mixture; western wheatgrass, 20 to 45%; sideoats grama, 20 to 40%; blue grama, 10 to 25%; green needlegrass 5 to 30%; prairie sandreed, 10 to 30%; sand bluestem, 20 to 35%; little bluestem, 0 to 10%. Seed dealers can help design a mix for a specific site using these species as a framework. The final species mix might depend on seed availability and price. It is best to avoid generic "dryland grass" mixes, even though they are often cheaper. Paying a little extra for high-quality seed of the desired species is usually a good investment. Proper seedbed preparation and planting the seed with a grass drill will greatly improve the chances of success, and any type of irrigation will help with grass establishment. A sprinkler that puts out small drops of water would be the best irrigation method, but if this is not possible, flood irrigation can work if care is taken so soil and seed are not washed away. The best time to plant prairie grasses is November through April. If the seed is planted during winter, and spring moisture is good, there is a possibility that irrigation could be avoided. Once the grass is established, it can be weaned from irrigation. Native prairie grasses are adapted to low rainfall and will do fine without irrigation in much of Colorado.

Q. What recommendations are there for designing a gray-water capture system to water a landscape? Are there any regulations regarding this type of water use?

A. Gray water refers to the reuse of water drained from baths, showers, washing machines, and sinks (household wastewater excluding toilet wastes) for irrigation and other water conservation applications. An important issue regarding gray water is the legal issue of collecting and using gray water in Colorado. Gray water use may not be a permissible use of water under a well permit and this must be clarified prior to installing a gray-water system. In some cases, the conditions of approval under which a permit was issued would not prohibit the capture and use of gray water, but in other cases, the permit conditions would not allow it. Specifically, if the permit was issued for ordinary household purposes inside a single-family dwelling, with no outside uses, the capture and use of gray water for any use outside the dwelling (including lawn and garden irrigation) would not be allowed. The most obvious advantage of domestic gray water use is that it may potentially replace other water used for landscape irrigation. Filtered gray water is most suitably used for subsurface irrigation of nonedible landscape plants. Not only does its use on landscapes conserve treated tap water, but gray water may also benefit plants because it often contains nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus. For more information on gray water use see the fact sheet, Gray Water Reuse and Rainwater Harvesting.

Q. How much water is in a "share" of Colorado irrigation water, and are shares the same per state?

A. Water "shares" vary by ditch companies in Colorado. One share equals so-many acre-feet of water normally, such as one share or unit of Big Thompson water is equal to one acre- foot. Some ditch companies have over 40 acre-feet per share. Owners of water shares should check with their local ditch company to find out how many acre-feet of water is equal to a share. Then the next question should be what has been the allocation per share in that ditch over the last five years? Using the Big Thompson example, even though a share is one acre-foot, the water has only been allocated at approximately 50 to 60 percent of that amount to users in the last several years. The third thing a user needs to know is what the actual deliverable water is to the property. (The example of one share equals one acre-foot allocated at 50 percent means the most water the owner can get is one half an acre-foot unless the allocation is changed. There is also the chance of ditch loss so the water that actually gets to the property may only wind up being approximately 40 percent of a share.) As a general rule of thumb along the Front Range of Colorado it takes about two acre-feet of deliverable water to the property to raise the common crops.

Q. Can alfalfa and dryland grass seed be planted in the fall so it will emerge in the spring and be ready for grazing?

A. The best time to plant dryland grass seed is after the ground is cold enough to prevent germination until spring--probably anytime after October 15. In many parts of Colorado, dryland grasses are best planted during late fall or winter. This is referred to as a "dormant planting." The seed is put in place in anticipation of spring moisture and warm temperatures. Dryland plantings are often more successful if they are preceded with a summer cover crop of sorghum/sudangrass or sometimes a cereal grain such as oats or triticale. The summer cover crop allows for broadleaf weed control if needed. The stubble from the cover crop is left in place and the grass seed is drilled directly into the residue. The residue helps trap snow and moisture and prevents erosion while the grasses become established. If this recommended approach is used, the cover crop should be prevented from going to seed, possibly using sterile varieties, or mowing before the seeds set. The new grass stand should be given a full year to establish before it is grazed, so that the plants can establish enough root reserves to withstand the grazing pressure. Each county in Colorado has a Natural Resource Conservation Service office that can provide information on planting grass mixes for pastures in specific locations.

Q. What is the best way to get rid of large ant piles in a pasture?

A. The piles are probably from harvester ants, which play a critical role in recycling nutrients in rangeland ecosystems. They play a role in turning over the soils and allowing enhanced infiltration of water, so they should not be eliminated. And even if they were treated for control, they would probably return.

Updated Wednesday, January 08, 2014