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Dawson County Success Stories

Dawson County Success Stories

Kangaroo Conservation Center (PDF) (222 KB)html
McCracken (PDF) (96.3 KB) html
Overstreet (PDF) (326 KB) html

Owners Work to Save Marsupials at Georgia’s One-of-a-Kind Kangaroo Conservation Center near Dawsonville

Who would believe that located in the hills of Dawson County, there exists an 87-acre preserve created for the protection and conservation of kangaroos?

Owners, Roger and Debbie Nelson started a private exotic animal breeding facility and wildlife sanctuary in the 1980s. Just four years later, they acquired their first pair of kangaroos and became fascinated with the animals.

Kangaroos have a history of not living long in captivity and suffering numerous health problems. The Nelson's were determined to change that. In 1999, they bought a tract of land near Dawsonville and spent the next year creating a proper habitat for raising kangaroos. The kangaroos needed plenty of grass to eat, an area large enough to roam in and access to clean drinking water.

Louise McPherson, soil conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was there in the beginning. “I first worked with the KCC when they started building their center to move their animals up here from Alpharetta. There were some erosion and water quality issues with trying to establish pasture and clean up the pond. I stopped in one day and introduced myself and offered our technical assistance for helping to solve them,” McPherson said.

She recommended starting with soil samples to determine when and what to plant to control the erosion. But in the beginning there was more than erosion to contend with. There was the lack of grass over 35 acres of land and a 2-acre spring-fed man-made lake. “When the lake was made, the entire area around it needed to be graded. As a result, there was a period where there was no grass growing, primarily due to drought conditions here in Georgia,” said Maneyapanda.

 “It kind of looked like a bomb had been dropped on it. It was a big hole waiting to fill with water and the land right around it had to be graded to build the lake,” said McPherson. Today the grass is plentiful and the lake area is fully grown in with grass but the center still has concerns. “That lake is man-made, but it’s fed by a spring—a tremendous spring. There is also a natural stream that crosses through our property. A number of years ago, a water quality study was done, and it was determined that the water leaving the lake was cleaner, than when it entered the lake.

“We take great pride in the fact that we house our animals in an appropriate manner, in terms of their spatial, dietary and social requirements. As the animals are extraordinarily active, they can wear paths in the common travel or rest areas, and as such, these fields will need periodic attention and repair,” said Jeremy Maneyapanda, the facility manager.

Something we have to be concerned with is how this water entering our property may affect our facility as a whole. There is an enormous watershed that flows through this property. As this essentially reaches nearly our entire collection, we have no choice to be worried about the water quality and how it may affect our animals,” said Maneyapanda. Kangaroos forage all day. To keep the grass growing and plentiful, the center uses rotational grazing. “The guys that we looked at in the last field, they actually live in this field. We moved them over there, got this stable and strong; in a couple of months we’ll move them back over and repeat the process,” said Maneyapanda.

He explained that they gained other benefits also from taking care of the lake and the land around it. “We originally exhibited exotic waterfowl at the lake, but we have since found it to be better suited as a natural water source for the native wildlife. We get the typical Canadian geese, mallard ducks, and great blue herons, turtles, and non-venomous snakes, but we also see some interesting non-typical life, such as belted kingfishers, wood ducks, a transient beaver, and even an unusual snow goose. It’s wonderfully suited as a home for wildlife.” “We take a lot of pride in making sure our animals’ health, safety, and security are our priority.

These animals thrive only when certain conditions are met regarding their habitats and husbandry,” said Maneyapanda. There was no specific conservation program used to help the center, according to McPherson. All of the service provided was under the conservation technical assistance that the agency provides free-of-charge. “Working together is what it takes; personal contacts and sharing,” McPherson said.

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Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helps Horse Farmers

In 2000 John and Moira McCracken started clearing their 50 acres of land so they could move their horse farm from one side of Dawson County to the other. It took them three years before they could move the horses onto the land and another year before they could move into their new home.

“Breeding Irish Sport horses is what we have focused on, although our nine horses are certainly a mix of horses—from our retired foxhunting horses, a miniature donkey to  a quarter horse,” said Moira McCracken. “Within a two-mile area there are 10 people that are horse owners with horses on their property.”

The McCracken’s did not know that they could receive help from the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), so for the last eight years they have been doing everything from their own knowledge and out of their own pocket.

When asked how they heard about the NRCS, John McCracken said, “read about it in the newspaper.” Louise McPherson, soil conservationist for the NRCS elaborated, “The McCracken’s saw the EQIP article in the newspaper and called to see if they would qualify. I already knew Moira from helping her with some classes she did for the elementary school students a few years ago.”

McPherson took a trip out to the farm to see how the NRCS could help the McCracken’s with their horse farm. Now they have an EQIP contract. “I went out and went over their farm with them to see what we could help with.”

The McCracken’s had concerns about the pastures, water for the horses and some erosion. “Their concerns were lack of forage and erosion due to the drought. The little creek where the horses drank also dried up during the drought,” said McPherson.

“The EQIP contract will help them with reseeding pastures which were damaged by the drought. It will also help cover cross fencing, a well, water troughs and heavy use areas at the troughs. The well and water troughs will allow them to rotate the grazing so that none of the pastures get overgrazed,” said McPherson”

After a good spring rainfall the pastures at the moment are green and full of grass. Moira believes the farm will benefit from the cross fencing and a well. “Right now I’m not a great rotator of horses and I’m not using cross fencing. I try to keep one pasture unoccupied. That big field down below, never seems to get a rest, right now I have my two young horses on it. I need to divide that field. That will be the benefit of cross fencing and putting in the well –it will allow us to rotate the horses.”

This is a farm moving toward conservation. Their success is not in the past but in the future. “We signed up for EQIP and we’re going to put some cross fencing in that big pasture. We have only signed up to do the first pasture in the front and we are going to divide it and we’re going to put the well down there and we’re going to seed everything,” said McCracken.

McCracken’s conservation philosophy is simple and to the point. "Horses are beautiful, powerful creatures that capture our hearts, and everybody wants to own them, but most people don't realize all the work that goes along with owning horses. It is a real conservation challenge. You must plan ahead and make sure you have enough pasture for them and rotate the lots. Otherwise, you wind up with a horse standing in a dirt lot and that is what we are working so hard here to prevent. That’s my conservation statement,” Moira McCracken.

The future for the McCracken’s will be brighter as the NRCS will continue to work with them. “We will continue to work with them to help get these practices established successfully,” said McPherson.

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Soil Erosion/Water Quality/Waste Management Problem

The Etowah River runs through the farm of Ben and Mary Joe Overstreet in the lower end of Dawson County. With a 77,000+ acre watershed, the Etowah is a big river with huge storm flows that has led to erosion for many years. Increased development in the watershed has only added to the problem.

Mr. Overstreet says that probably 100 feet or more of his pasture has washed away in a big curve in the river adjacent to his property over the past 40 years. He has tried planting different species on the bank but nothing ever gets to stay there long enough to stabilize the bank before it washes out again. Conservation Solution!

With technical assistance from USDA-NRCS and partnering with the Upper Etowah River Alliance to do a demonstration site for a Best Management Practice, Mr. Overstreet installed a whole tree revetment on a washed out section of the river bank that was 400 feet long and about 12 feet deep. Buddy Belflower, NRCS District Conservationist, learned about the successful use of whole tree revetments in North Carolina.

Mr. Overstreet is a great conservationist and conservation leader for the community, and is always eager to learn and implement new techniques that will help protect the resources on his farm and others. Belflower and Overstreet went to North Carolina to learn first-hand about whole tree revetment and then came back and installed it on the Overstreet farm.

After the river bank was stabilized, Mr. Overstreet installed a fence about 50 feet from the bank and planted an assortment of hardwood trees in the buffer area to provide wildlife habitat along the river. He placed a 3 ft. square of non-woven filter fabric around the base of each tree to help reduce the weed and grass competition and give the trees a head start.

Many of the trees have grown to over 10 feet tall in just two years, according to Overstreet. “We wanted to protect the river bank not only for the sake of our pasture and seed field but also to protect the water and the river downstream. One of our concerns was where to get the trees to protect the river bank without taking erosion protection away from some other part of the farm. Luckily we were able to get enough trees off the fence rows to do the job.”

Overstreet is a district supervisor with the Upper Chattahoochee River Soil and Water Conservation District and has been farming all his life. His son-in-law farms with him and his grandson will continue the tradition when he graduates from the University of Georgia. With conservationists like these, the farm is in good hands!

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