When laying out a homestead or small farm, there are a number of pitfalls to watch out for. One common error is to build at random, only to find out in the process of daily chores that the design was inefficient. The opposite error is to craft a careful plan but fail to take into consideration the suitability of the land for the intended purpose.
Best results will follow from tailoring the farm layout to the farm conditions:
Obviously, the smaller the farm the more compromises will have to be made. More acreage opens up more options, but at the same time creates a greater potential for inefficient use.
So what are the optimal conditions for common aspects of a farm?
The buildings of the farm obviously need to be placed on reasonably level ground. They also must be convenient to the tasks they will be used to perform. For instance, a dairy parlor needs to be reasonably close to the pastures where the cows are kept.
Outdoor handling facilities, such as corrals and riding arenas, should be well-drained. A very gentle slope can be beneficial here.
All animal housing and facilities should be placed in a location that will permit good ventilation, but without being subjected to the worst of the winter winds.
Roads & Paths
While people often prefer roads and paths that are straight for convenience, allowing these corridors to follow natural contours will avoid dissecting important parts of your land, and it will also reduce problems such as erosion.
Likewise, treelines and shelterbelts should typically follow natural contours. The one major exception to this rule is around the perimeter of the property. A permanent fence and treeline is recommended in this situation for privacy and to contain livestock.
A shelterbelt on the north side of the house and garden is often beneficial for protection from winter winds and snows. Likewise, a three-row shelterbelt on the north and west side is a common method of protecting livestock kept in lots during the winter.
A good starting point in choosing the best place for your farm woodlot is to determine the ecological types on your property and their locations.
Trees typically grow near streams. However, this does not necessarily imply that a streamside location should be filled in with a dense stand of trees. Regions that are typically grasslands by nature may have some trees by streams, but they may be spaced out more like a savannah than a true woodland environment. Nevertheless, a savannah may still be quite sufficient for homestead firewood.
The perfect garden or orchard site receives full sun and has loamy soil. It is either level or gently sloping toward the south. It is located on the south side of a building or shelterbelt to increase the number of frost-free days and thus the length of the growing season.
However, because the garden needs to be easily accessed by people to ensure that it is maintained and harvested frequently, it is important that the garden be placed as close as possible to the dwelling. Likewise, convenient access to water is a must. An orchard can safely be sited slightly farther away.
Within the garden, plants should be grouped in mutually beneficial ways. Heat-loving vegetables should grow toward the south end of the garden so that they will receive maximum sunlight. Cool-season vegetables can be grown in the shade of taller plants.
Obviously, a relatively level plot with few rocks, buildings, corners, and other obstacles is desired for a field devoted to growing grains.
Soil erosion can be reduced or prevented with a little care. One method is to intersperse prairie strips throughout the field. Planting along the natural contours is another common approach.
As for what type of crops to plant, this is where climate and soil type become important considerations. Every crop has a preferred set of growing conditions. Matching what your land has to offer with crops that will thrive under those conditions will provide the best yield for the least effort.
You will probably want to have more than one field to make crop rotations easier. Consider planting some of the fields to annual pasture from time to time to improve soil health and quality.
For safety, it is best to place hives slightly back from paths, roads, and buildings where people frequently work. However, keep them within sight of the house so that you will remember to check on the bees from time to time.
Keep in mind, too, that your bees will need suitable places to forage. You will want to place them reasonably close to vegetables, fruits, nuts, alfalfa, or wildlife habitat.
Pastures & Hayfields
Do not overlook brushy areas as potential pastures. Research your land to determine its natural preferences. An overgrown pasture might benefit from clearing and restoration to grassland. An open savannah-type setting is also excellent for pasture with a slightly different approach to grazing management.
Likewise, pastures do not need to be perfectly flat. The key is to divide pastures into units by placing fences along the contours. Thus, a south-facing slope will be treated as a separate unit from a north-facing slope.
Access to water is a must. However, livestock should be fenced out from water sources such as springs, ponds, and streams to avoid water contamination and shoreline deterioration.
If you have multiple pastures, you may want to match the needs of your animals to the conditions of each pasture. Fast-growing meat animals, such as steers for grass-finishing, benefit from receiving the best pastures you have to offer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, pastures in need of clearing are great places to put animals such as pigs and goats.
Pastures can often be used for hay production, as well. A common approach is to set aside a few paddocks for hay in the spring when the grass is growing faster than the animals can eat it. The hay is then harvested in early summer and returned to pasture to increase forage availability through the summer slump.
Poultry can be kept on pasture, but they should be housed in the pastures closest to the house. This will make poultry-keeping chores easier, and may help deter predators to some degree.
To make pond construction easier and cheaper, ponds should be located in low points on the property, ideally places where water already collects naturally.
Another important factor in choosing a site for a pond is the soil type. To prevent leakage, a pond needs to have at least 20% clay in the bottom.
To improve water quality in your pond, fence the livestock out. Permit a grassy buffer zone to grow around the borders, as this will serve as a filter.
On a very small farm, you may struggle to find space to reserve for wildlife habitat. However, it is a myth that wildlife habitat has to be completely untouched. Much habitat benefits from occasional light intervention. For instance, good grazing management can dramatically increase the number of plant and animal species that you see on your land. A well-managed pond can also be a draw.
The key to setting up quality wildlife habitat is to research your property’s native ecology. A moderately large tract of land may boast several types of habitat. Even within a larger ecosystem, there are numerous subcategories with different species and needs. For instance, a property that is mostly upland prairie may have a stream that will require slightly different management than the rest of the land.
Web Soil Survey
Includes plenty of helpful advice on land use.
Major Land Resource Area Map
Learn abut the ecological sites on your property, along with native plant and animal species.