Sunshire Stables, A Clean Water Farm



Dean and Debra Merrill receive the 2010 Clean Water Farm Award from NVSWCD Board Chair Jean Packard

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District was pleased to present the 2010 Clean Water Farm Award to Mr. & Mrs. Dean Merrill. The Merrils own and manage an 11-acre 6-horse boarding and riding operation called Sunshire Stables. Their farm is located in the Occoquan River and Reservoir watershed; Sandy Run and a tributary flow through their property, and a farm pond exists on site. Approximately 85% of the property is within Fairfax County’s delineated Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Area (RPA).

Mr. & Mrs. Merrill, being fully aware of the degree of environmental sensitivity that comes with their property, have consistently worked with NVSWCD to do all they can to minimize non-point source pollution contribution from their stable operation. Their cooperation with the district dates back over a decade, and Dean and Debra have always been willing to do the right thing!

They face challenges typical of most horse operations in suburban communities, where large animals are kept on relatively small properties. Their roadmap to success is a Soil and Water Quality Conservation Plan prepared by the district. As a result, they have managed their operation in an exemplary manner.

Manure management: In 2007, at the advice of the district staff, the Merrills made a big move and decided to improve their stable waste management practice. They relocated their permanent manure stacking area - which was closer to their barn but within the RPA - to a more remote area outside the RPA to protect water quality. To help them accomplish this major change, they participated in the VA State Agricultural Best Management Cost Share Program. A four-cell composting facility with a roof and impervious base was constructed. Their stable waste is now successfully composted and incorporated into their nutrient management.

Sound pasture management: The Merrills have improved their pasture management with a rotational grazing program. The horses are divided into groups, rotated through the fields and allowed to graze just long enough to prevent overgrazing.

The horses are kept off the pasture on wet weather days to protect the soil from over-compaction and the grass from being dug up by the hooves of the animals. They are also kept off the grazing areas during drought conditions to reduce stress on the grasses. By maintaining a good stand of grass year-round, pasture erosion is kept to a minimum and water quality is protected.

Fences and Vegetation: The Merrills use fences around the pond and along stream buffer areas to keep the horses from having direct access to the open water bodies. Also, saved trees and shrubs within the fenced-off areas of the pond and streams provide a good buffer zone that functions to extract pollutants from runoff through vegetative absorption and soil infiltration.

Nutrient management practices: The Merrills take great pride in implementing their water-friendly nutrient management plan. Composted waste is spread over their fields at recommended times, which contributes slow-release nitrogen and residual phosphorus and potassium. Composting waste at high temperatures also kills weed seeds and harmful bacteria or pathogens.

The compost makes considerable improvement to the tilth of the soil, retains moisture, and encourages the existence of other much needed micro-organisms. All of this makes for increased grass growth, which in turn protects soil from erosion.

Integrated Pest Management: By establishing a threshold of pest tolerance and by responding early to pest emergence, pesticide use has been kept to a minimum. This reduces the potential for excess pesticides that may degrade water quality and adversely impact other organisms.

Wildlife habitat: Bushes, small densely vegetated patches and wooded areas have been saved to provide shelter and food for a variety of wildlife such as birds, foxes and deer, evidence of which are clearly seen on the property.

Community contribution: The Merrills have conducted a number of educational tours of their operation for the public and conservation professionals. Dean Merrill has also graciously agreed to speak at an upcoming seminar (see below).

Clean Farm Award: We congratulate Dean and Debra Merrill on their outstanding horse farm management and their dedication to protecting water quality.

* * * Now Announcing * * *

Horse Farm Management Seminar

We invite you to attend the fourth seminar in this popular series on horse farm management, focusing on Sacrifice (Heavy Use) Areas: Location, Design and Construction. Special guest speakers will include Dean Merrill of Sunshire Stables. Stay tuned for more information! Co-sponsored by Sarah Kirk of Great Falls Saddlery.

Date: Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Time: 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.

Location: Great Falls Library at 9803 Georgetown Pike, Great Falls, VA 22066

For more details contact Willie Woode at 703-324-1430, TTY 711, or via e-mail.


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