How to protect water quality around livestock pastures
There are four simple management strategies that farms pasturing livestock can do to protect water quality.
Nothing is more aesthetically pleasing than seeing animals grazing or young foals, calves or lambs playfully chasing each other in a lush green pasture on a warm summer day. It makes passerby’s stop and appreciate the beauty of the surroundings. In contrast, the last thing that a passerby wants to see is muddy water running off the pasture to the nearest ditch or stream. There are easy management strategies that can be done to prevent this sight and to protect water quality.
The first step that a livestock owner should take is to ensure that pastures are more than 150 feet from surface water and 50 feet from water wells. Vegetation between the pasture and the surface water should be maintained, it should be clipped so that plants are actively growing. This will capture or impede nutrients from running into surface water. If this is not feasible and livestock have access to surface water, for example to have access to drinking water, they should only have limited access. The access should be properly constructed to maintain the vegetative stream banks and to prevent erosion. Consult your local Natural Resource Conservation Service for information on stream access construction.
Pastures should not be overstocked to prevent the land from being overgrazed. If a pasture is overgrazed and vegetation is sparse, runoff of water and nutrients is likely. There is also the risk that contaminated water could leach through the soil and reach groundwater.
Utilize managed intensive grazing and control where and how often the animals graze by subdividing the pasture into smaller paddocks with fencing. This will reduce the excessive accumulation of manure nutrients in certain areas like shaded loafing areas.
The last step is to rotate water tanks and feeding areas including salt and mineral feeding sites. This will safeguard against accumulation of manure and spent feed that could move out of the pasture into nearby surface water. If this is not feasible, manure and nutrients should be frequently scraped and removed from the area so that runoff or infiltration of nutrients is minimized.
For more information on pasture management practices that will protect water quality check out MSU Extension Bulletin E-3066 “Acceptable Practices for Managing Livestock Along Lakes, Streams, and Wetlands”.