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Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Operations - Best Management Practices (BMPs)

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Pasture, Rangeland, and Grazing Operations

Operating procedures, schedules of activities, maintenance procedures, and other management practices that pasture, rangeland, and grazing operations can use to prevent or reduce pollution.

More information from states
South Dakota Grazing Management and Planning Project Exit EPA

More information from other organizations
Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative Exit EPA

Methane Production

Ruminant animals, such as cattle, sheep, buffalo, and goats, are unique. Because of their special digestive systems, they can convert otherwise unusable plant materials into nutritious food and fiber. This same helpful digestive system produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can contribute to global climate change. Livestock production systems can also emit other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.

Globally, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million tons of methane annually, accounting for about 22 percent of global methane emissions from human-related activities. An adult cow may be a very small source by itself, emitting only 80-120 kgs of methane, but with about 100 million cattle in the U.S. and 1.2 billion large ruminants in the world, ruminants are one of the largest methane sources. In the U.S., cattle emit about 6 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to about 36 million metric tons of carbon.

The potential effects of climate change on agriculture are uncertain, and could be positive in some respects and negative in others. At the regional level, changes in precipitation and temperature patterns could jeopardize current agricultural practices. The frequency of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and severe storms may increase. Sea levels could rise, threatening vulnerable coastlines around the world, and tropical diseases and pests that affect plants and animals could increase their range.

Cattle emit methane through a digestive process called enteric fermentation. Since methane represents a loss of carbon from the rumen and therefore an unproductive use of dietary energy, scientists have been looking for ways to suppress its production. The most promising approach for reducing methane emissions from U.S. livestock is by improving the efficiency of livestock production. Greater efficiency of livestock production can increase profitability and be good for the environment at the same time. This general approach has been demonstrated by the U.S. dairy industry over the past several decades as milk production increased and methane emissions decreased. Nutritional and genetic improvements are mainly responsible for making modern U.S. dairy cows more productive. 

Many different management practices can improve a livestock operation's production efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the most effective practices include:

The particular practices a livestock producer utilizes to improve production will depend on the circumstances of his or her operation, including the goals to be achieved and the natural, financial, and labor resources available. By producing meat and milk with the most efficient U.S. herd possible, the global environment as well as our own economy will benefit. The bottom line - improved livestock management - is good for the environment and makes dollars and sense.

More information from EPA
EPA Celebrates California County's First Methane Digester
Ruminant Livestock
Climate Change - Agriculture and Food Supply

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Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution in Coastal Waters

EPA specifies management measures to protect coastal waters from agricultural animal sources of non-point pollution.

Management measures: "Management measures" are defined in section 6217 of the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990 (CZARA) as economically achievable measures to control the addition of pollutants to our coastal waters, which reflect the greatest degree of pollutant reduction achievable through the application of the best available non-point pollution control practices, technologies, processes, siting criteria, operating methods, or other alternatives.

These management measures will be incorporated by states into their coastal non-point programs, which under CZARA are to provide for the implementation of management measures that are "in conformity" with this guidance. Under CZARA, states are subject to a number of requirements as they develop and implement their Coastal Non-point Pollution Control Programs in conformity with this guidance, and will have some flexibility in doing so.

Management practices: In addition to specifying management measures, EPA also lists and describes management practices for illustrative purposes only. While state programs are required to specify management measures in conformity with this guidance, state programs need not specify or require implementation of the particular management practices described by EPA.  However, as a practical matter, EPA anticipates that the management measures generally will be implemented by applying one or more management practices appropriate to the site, location, type of operation, and climate. EPA found these practices to be representative of the types of practices that can be applied successfully to achieve the management measures. EPA has also used some of these practices, or appropriate combinations of these practices, as a basis for estimating the effectiveness, costs, and economic impacts of achieving the management measures.

Agriculture Nonpoint Source Pollutants: The primary agricultural nonpoint source pollutants are nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus), sediment, animal wastes, pesticides, and salts. Agricultural nonpoint sources enter surface water through direct surface runoff or through seepage to ground water that discharges to a surface water outlet. Various farming activities result in the erosion of soil particles. The sediment produced by erosion can damage fish habitat and wetlands and, in addition, often transports excess agricultural chemicals resulting in contaminated runoff. This runoff in turn affects changes to aquatic habitat such as temperature increases and decreased oxygen.

Grazing Management Measure

Erosion/Sediment Control Management  Measure

More information from EPA
Guidance Specifying Management Measures for Sources of Nonpoint Pollution in Coastal Waters
Chapter 2: Management Measures for Agricultural Sources
Chapter 2, Section I-F: Effects of Improper Grazing
Chapter 2, Section II-A: Erosion/Sediment Control Management Measure
Chapter 2, Section II-E: Grazing Management Measure
Fact Sheet: Agriculture Management Measures

Information from USDA
Riparian Area Management: Grazing Management in Riparian Areas

More information
Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990

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Nonpoint Source Pollution

The most recent National Water Quality Inventory reports that agricultural nonpoint source (NPS) pollution is the leading source of water quality impacts to surveyed rivers and lakes, the third largest source of impairments to surveyed estuaries, and also a major contributor to ground water contamination and wetlands degradation. 

Agricultural activities that cause NPS pollution include confined animal facilities, grazing, plowing, pesticide spraying, irrigation, fertilizing, planting, and harvesting. The major agricultural NPS pollutants that result from these activities are sediment, nutrients, pathogens, pesticides, and salts. Agricultural activities also can damage habitat and stream channels. Agricultural impacts on surface water and ground water can be minimized by properly managing activities that can cause NPS pollution. 

Numerous government programs are available to help people design and pay for management approaches to prevent and control NPS pollution. For example, over 40 percent of section 319 Clean Water Act grants were used to control agricultural NPS pollution. Also, several USDA and state-funded programs provide cost-share, technical assistance, and economic incentives to implement NPS pollution management practices. Many people use their own resources to adopt technologies and practices to limit water quality impacts caused by agricultural activities.

Managing Livestock Grazing. Overgrazing exposes soils, increases erosion, encourages invasion by undesirable plants, destroys fish habitat, and reduces the filtration of sediment necessary for building stream banks, wet meadows, and floodplains. To reduce the impacts of grazing on water quality, farmers and ranchers can adjust grazing intensity, keep livestock out of sensitive areas, provide alternative sources of water and shade, and re-vegetate rangeland and pastureland.

Managing Sedimentation: Sedimentation occurs when wind or water runoff carries soil particles from an area, such as a farm field, and transports them to a water body, such as a stream or lake. Excessive sedimentation clouds the water, which reduces the amount of sunlight reaching aquatic plants, covers fish spawning areas and food supplies, and clogs the gills of fish. In addition, other pollutants like phosphorus, pathogens, and heavy metals are often attached to the soil particles and enter the water bodies with the sediment. Farmers and ranchers can reduce erosion and sedimentation by 20 to 90 percent by applying management measures to control the volume and flow rate of runoff water, keep the soil in place, and reduce soil transport.

More information from EPA
EPA National Water Quality Inventory Report

More information from USDA
Assessments to Reduce Nitrogen and Phosphorus Nonpoint Source Pollution of Iowa's Surface Waters

Success Stories
Map of Section 319 Nonpoint Source Success Stories in the US

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Using the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to Reduce Animal Feeding Operation Pollution

The 25th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in October 1997 sparked the development of the Clean Water Action Plan (CWAP), which calls for a renewed commitment to providing "fishable and swimmable" waters to all Americans. In creating the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), Congress ensured that it would be able to fund a wide range of water quality projects, including nonpoint source, wetlands, estuary, and watershed projects, as well as municipal wastewater treatment systems. The 51 funding programs (one in each state and Puerto Rico) work like banks. Federal and state contributions are used to capitalize or set up the programs. These assets, in turn, are used to make low-interest loans (as low as 0%) for important water quality projects. Loan repayments are then recycled to fund other important water quality projects.

Who is eligible?  Loan recipients are community groups, individuals, and agricultural and nonprofit organizations. Since the program is managed largely by the states, project funding may vary according to the priorities within each state. To obtain the funding, a project must be in a state's Nonpoint Source Management Plan or Estuary Conservation and Management Plan. Contact your state's Clean Water Act program for details.

Restrictions on eligibility.  Animal Feeding Operations that meet certain specified criteria in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) regulations are referred to as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Under the Clean Water Act, CAFOs are point sources. Point sources can only receive CWSRF funding if publicly owned. However, a privately owned agricultural operation that includes a CAFO may still be eligible for CWSRF funding for a nonpoint source project if:

  1. The proposed remediation takes place outside the CAFO
  2. The agricultural operation has a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) developed by a public official or certified private party and is implementing it
  3. The proposed project is consistent with the Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan

At these facilities stormwater runoff from land application areas may be viewed as a nonpoint source discharge and, thus, eligible for the funding.

How much funding is available? The Clean Water State Revolving Fund has in excess of $27 billion in assets. Currently, it is funding approximately $3 billion in water quality projects each year. Funding for polluted runoff projects  is gaining momentum as the Clean Water Action Plan initiatives get under way.

More information from EPA

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Controlled Grazing

Improving grazing management will increase forage productivity and quality on land. Standard, continuous stocking may fail to produce all the forage your land can give you and often results in selective and incomplete grazing. This can mean wasted forage and lower live-weight gains per acre of land.

To reduce this waste and increase forage production, consider controlled grazing. Controlled grazing means letting cattle graze certain paddocks while allowing other paddocks time to regrow. Controlled grazing allows for cattle to receive the forage that is the most nutritious and palatable. Many acres of land and fencing are not necessary. When livestock are trained, a single strand of electric fence provides sufficient control to implement a controlled grazing system. Start small and expand as management skills sharpen.  Moving to a more intensive grazing system by adding more fencing, watering systems, and other features, will allow for additional benefits. Regardless of the grazing technique, the goal should be to provide the amount and quality of forage animals need while maintaining the vigor of the plants.

When using controlled grazing, remember to keep it flexible. Use flexible fencing options, shade structures, and efficient watering systems that allow for response to changing conditions.  Innovations in electric fencing and improved watering systems make controlled grazing more convenient.

Also improve production efficiency by putting up, storing, and distributing silage and hay properly.  Cure and store baled hay properly to avoid leaf shatter, bleaching, and moisture intrusion.  Adopt feeding methods that avoid trampling, fecal contamination, and over-consumption.  Cut feeding losses even more by restricting animal access to feed pens - use racks, panels, or temporary fence - and adjust feeding intervals and amounts.  Test stored feed for quality because it can vary greatly depending on cutting frequency, harvest season, soil fertility and type, and forage species. 

The benefits of these strategies include increased stocking rates, higher forage yields, better forage quality, and more liveweight gain per acre.  Save on fertilizer purchases because controlled grazing will more evenly distribute the manure and urine on your pasture and recycle the nutrients to the pasture plants. These benefits all mean more profits for your agri-business.  Controlled grazing reduces soil erosion, improves air and water quality, and supports a greater variety of plant species.

More information from EPA
Small Steps Make a Difference: Improving Your Calf - Cow Business (PDF) (16 pp, 159K)

Information from Academic Institutions Exit EPA

Small Farms Fact Sheet Series (Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship project)
Small-Scale Farmers and the Environment: How to be a Good Steward (PDF) (13 pp, 469K)
Spanish - Small-Scale Farmers and the Environment: How to be a Good Steward (Cómo proteger el medio ambiente en los ranchos y granjas pequeños) (PDF) (15 pp, 472K)
The ABCs of Pasture Grazing (PDF) (12 pp, 525K)
Spanish - The ABCs of Pasture Grazing (El abecé del pastoreo) (PDF) (14 pp, 514K)

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Manure Management

More information from the States Exit EPA

Northeast Recycling Council's Manure Management Education -- provides assistance to small and hobby farmers/livestock owners to understand and adopt best management practices for handling and using manure. Key manure management resources include:

Small Farms Fact Sheet Series (Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship project)

Riparian and Wetland Management
Range Management Overview
Rangeland Frequently Asked Questions

Kansas State University
KSU Grasslands Management

North Carolina
Water, Soil, and Hydro-Environmental Decision Support System (WATERSHEDSS)

Best Management Practices

Information from Other Organizations Exit EPA
Livestock Waste Management: A project of the Conservation Technology Information Center

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