Land and Pasture Management A Virtual Tour of conservation practices related to animal agriculture

Animal agriculture operations often include pasture or crop lands. Conservation-minded management of these acres is essential to protect natural resources and maintain productivity. Several land and pasture conservation practices associated with livestock or poultry are listed below.

Access Control (472)

Keeping animals, humans, or traffic from entering an area is access control. For animal agriculture, this often is used to keep animals out of streams or other sensitive areas, or to allow an area affected by a natural disaster to recover. Photos 1-3 show different types of livestock exclusion.

Natural Resources Benefits. Excluding animals from an area can protect water quality by allowing vegetation to establish and reduce soil erosion. It can also prevent animals from causing damage to streambanks or depositing manure and urine directly into water. Wildlife habitat can be enhanced through access control.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: This water gap restricts livestock access to the stream and benefits water quality and streambank health. Photo 2: A riparian area exclusion in Montana. Photo 3: Livestock exclusion is used to improve condition of this stream and fish habitat.

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Cover Crop (340)

Cover crops are planted to provide temporary vegetative cover for an area. Animal agriculture operations may use cover crops on crop fields and may use the cover crop for seasonal grazing. Photos 1-3 show different cover crops.

Natural Resource Benefits. Cover crops are planted to take up soil nutrients, including those in fall manure applications. Once taken up by a cover crop, nutrients are at a lower risk of runoff or leaching. Cover crops also protect soil health by reducing erosion and increasing soil organic matter. Cover crops provide economic benefits to farms by retaining nutrients and providing grazing or hay.

Photo 1: This farm's cover crops include a mix of annual ryegrass and tillage radish provide forage for the cattle herd. Photo 2: Cover crops have soil and water quality benefits. Photo 3: This farmer plants strip tilled peanuts as a small grain cover crop.

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Critical Area Planting (342)

This practice is used in areas where the existing vegetation is either gone or disturbed and requires intervention in order to re-establish. For animal feeding operations, this may be needed on a construction site where a new or expanded lot or manure storage structure is built. For pasture-based operations, planting may be needed on eroded stream banks or hillsides. It may also be needed on farms or ranches affected by a natural disaster. Photos 1-3 show different areas on which vegetation is being re-established.

Natural Resources Benefits. Critical area planting protects soil and water resources by preventing erosion. Plantings can also enhance wildlife or pollinator habitat.

Photo 1: A hillside in Montana is staked and mulched after seeding for stabilization. Photo 2: This Park Ranger checks the riparian zone, ecosystem of trees, grass, and hedgerow bushes in California. Photo 3: A NRCS conservationist and farmer inspect a native grass planting near a restored wetland.

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Denitrifying Bioreactor (605)

A denitrifying bioreactor is an underground chamber that is filled with woodchips. Water from subsurface or tile drainage is directed through this chamber prior to release from an outlet. Bacteria on the surface of the woodchips treat the water and convert nitrates to nitrogen gas. This practice can be used in animal agriculture operations that apply manure or fertilizer to crop fields that include subsurface drainage. The video below discusses bioreactors. Photos 1 and 2 and Figures 1 and 2 depict denitrifying bioreactors.

Natural Resources Benefits. Bioreactors protect water quality by removing nitrates from water before it is discharged. They do not negatively impact air quality because the nitrate is converted to nitrogen gas and released to the atmosphere.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: Researchers examine a core sample from a bio-reactor. Photo 2: Installation of a denitrifying bioreactor. Figure 1: Water control structures (in the large white circles) route water running through tile lines into the denitrifying bioreactor. Figure 2: Illustration of how a denitrifying bioreactor fits in with drainage water management.

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Diversion (362)

Diversion is a channel created for the purpose of directing water around or away from a particular area. For animal agriculture operations, a diversion is likely to be used to prevent upslope water from entering an animal feeding area, feed storage area, composting facility, manure storage structure, or other production or storage areas. Photos 1-3 show how diversion can be used around a farmstead or cattle feedlots.

Natural Resources Benefits. A diversion protects water quality by keeping clean runoff from entering areas where it could potentially become contaminated with nutrients, pathogens, or other pollutants. A diversion benefits the farm by reducing the amount of water that needs to be managed in the waste or manure storage systems. Animal health and productivity benefits when muddy conditions are reduced or avoided.

Photo 1: This farmstead diversion in Michigan directs water around the farm rather than through the animal lots (background). Photo 2: This aerial feedlot image shows how water is diverted around the upper corner of a feedlot in South Dakota. Photo 3: The clean water diversion at the right side of the image prevents clean water from entering the cattle feedlot.

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Fence (382)

Managing or restricting animal (or human) access to a location can often be accomplished by using fences. It is common for fencing to be used in conjunction with other conservation practices, such as Prescribed Grazing (528) or Waste Storage Facilities (313). Fences may be permanent or temporary as needed to accomplish the intended goal of the site. Photos 1-3 show different types of fencing.

Natural Resource Benefits. The use of fences can protect human, animal, or wildlife safety by restricting access to hazardous areas. Fences can protect water quality if used to restrict animal access to water or environmentally sensitive locations. Fences used in conjunction with other practices (such as prescribed grazing) can enhance soil and vegetation health or wildlife habitat.

Photo 1: Markers near sage-grouse lek in Montana reduce bird entanglements in the fence. Photo 2: Barbed wire cross-fence installed to facilitate grazing of native range in Jefferson County, Montana. Photo 3: Rotational grazing is accomplished through fencing on this cattle operation.

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Filter Strip (393)

A filter strip is a vegetated area meant to collect and treat runoff. Filter strips are not a permanent solution because they are designed for a 10-year lifespan. They are located near a potential contamination source. For animal agriculture operations, this may include crop fields, feed, or silage storage areas, feeding areas, or a mortality storage or composting area. Photos 1 and 2 show a field and a farmstead buffer.

Natural Resource Benefits. Filter strips protect water quality by removing contaminants from runoff, such as sediment or nutrients.

Photo 1: A grass filter strip functions as a conservation buffer along a small stream in Iowa. Photo 2: A farmstead windbreak and native grass filter strip, both conservation buffers, add beauty and protection to a farm in Iowa.

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Grassed Waterway (412)

Sometimes it is beneficial to create a vegetated channel in areas where erosion is likely due to concentrated runoff flow. Grassed waterways are typically installed in a crop field. Other areas on an animal agriculture operation that may benefit from a grassed waterway include roof gutter drain outlets or where a diversion ends around a lot or yard. Photos 1 and 2 show two examples of grassed waterways.

Natural Resource Benefits. Grassed waterways protect soil health and prevent erosion. They can also provide some filtering of runoff water to reduce solids, nutrients, or other pollutants.

Photo 1: A grassed waterway in northwest Iowa. Photo 2: A grassed waterway next to a field featuring stripcropping with cover crops in Pennsylvania.

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  • NRCS National Conservation Practice Standard Grassed Waterway (412)
  • Success story - A cattle farm in Minnesota uses grassed waterways and other conservation practices around the building site
  • Success story - A diversified Indiana farmer uses many conservation practices, including grassed waterways

Heavy Use Area Protection (561)

Animal agriculture operations frequently have areas where animal or vehicle traffic makes it difficult for vegetation to grow or for the area to remain stable. These heavy use areas can include feeding pads, sheltered areas, or loading/unloading site, among others. With this practice, concrete, gravel, and other methods are used to protect these areas. Photos 1, 2a, and 2b show examples of heavy use area protection.

Natural Resource Benefits. Stabilizing a heavily used area reduces soil erosion. It also protects water quality by reducing the potential for leaching or runoff. Protecting heavy use areas improves animal health and productivity by reducing mud and undesirable conditions. It can also reduce wasted feed.

Photo 1: This heavy use pad keeps cows on dry ground in Ohio. Photo 2a: Before: This barnyard poses a heath threat to livestock and contributes to non-point pollution. Photo 2b: After: The installation of concrete and curbs facilitates cleaning of manure and reduces the amount of contaminants leaving.

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Livestock Shelter Structure (576)

This conservation practice is used to build a structure that is not a four-walled building but can be used to provide shade, wind protection, or other weather protection for grazing animals.

Natural Resources Benefits. Shelters can provide water or soil health benefits by changing animal congregation patterns away from environmentally sensitive areas such as riparian or eroded areas. Shelters also improve livestock welfare, comfort, and productivity.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: Cattle using a fabricated windbreak in western South Dakota. Photo 2: Cattle using a NRCS designed windbreak as part of a grazing plan in South Dakota. Photo 3: Fabricated livestock shelter fence along a relocated animal feeding operation. Photo 4: A cattle shade structure in Alabama.

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Prescribed Grazing (528)

This conservation practice involves managing grazing animals to control the frequency, timing, and extent of grazing on a particular area. This can be accomplished through a variety of techniques including fence and water development. Prescribed grazing allows the farmer or rancher to rotate animals between paddocks that subdivide a larger pasture or parcel of rangeland. Allowing grazed forages adequate time to rest and recover is key to properly managing prescribed grazing. Photos 1-4 show different types of grazing systems.

Natural Resource Benefits. The goal of prescribed grazing is to not only improve animal productivity but also improve the health of soil and vegetation. Prescribed grazing can enhance wildlife habitat and contribute to improved water quality. Prescribed grazing can also be used (in some cases) to control weeds. A farm or ranch may also realize economic benefits from improved productivity and resilience to weather extremes from a well-managed grazing system.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: Cattle are rotated between different paddocks in this rotational grazing system. Photo 2: Two paddocks, one grazed, one un-grazed in a mob grazing system in Montana. Photo 3: Monitoring Site on a ranch in South Dakota allows the rancher to evaluate the effectiveness of the grazing system. Photo 4: This farmer moves sheep to a new paddock in his high intensity grazing system in Montana.

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Riparian Forest Buffer (391)

This conservation practice involves planting tree and shrub species in the area adjacent to a stream or other waterbody. This practice may be used on grazing operations and livestock should be excluded or only allowed controlled access to the area. Photos 1-3 show different riparian forest buffers.

Natural Resources Benefits. Riparian forest buffers can provide water quality benefits by reducing erosion or trapping sediment or nutrients before reaching a stream. They can also provide wildlife and pollinator habitat and improve conditions for aquatic organisms.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: Riparian forest buffers are natural or established trees, shrubs, and grasses situated next to rivers, streams and lakes. Photo 2: This landowner utilizes riparian forest buffers in Mississippi. Photo 3: Riparian buffer in California.

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Riparian Herbaceous Cover (390)

This conservation practice applies to areas with pasture or cropland adjacent to water bodies. It involves establishing suitable plants for wet, saturated areas to establish permanent plant cover. Photos 1-5 show riparian areas that are being managed to protect natural resources.

Natural Resource Benefits. Riparian plantings protect water quality by stabilizing banks and soils. They provide wildlife and pollinator habitat and can provide grazing or cover for livestock.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: Establishment of a vegetative cover keeps the soil in place and acts as a buffer. Fencing restricts animal access. Photo 2: Texas ranchers converted a portion of their cropland to a wetland and installed a riparian buffer. Photo 3: A temporary electric fence is used to maintain the health of vegetation on this Colorado ranch. Photo 4: A riparian pasture near Spanish Peaks, Colorado. Animal access is managed by using fences to restrict animal access. Photo 5: A riparian conservation buffer of grasses and trees offers wildlife habitat along Bear Creek in Iowa.

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Saturated Buffer (604)

A saturated buffer is a structure that accepts water from fields with subsurface drainage (tile drainage) and uses vegetative treatment to reduce nitrates before the water is released to an outlet. This practice would potentially apply to animal agriculture operations that spread manure (and other fertilizers) on tile-drained fields.

Natural Resource Benefits. Saturated buffers protect water quality by reducing nitrate loads in subsurface drainage before the water is released to outlets or other surface waters.

USDA officials discuss how the saturated buffer on Nick Meier's farm helps improve water quality in Iowa.

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Streambank and Shoreline Protection (580)

For animal agriculture operations, streambank or shoreline protection practices may be needed around waterbodies where desirable vegetation cannot be maintained because of grazing or animal traffic. Protecting the bank or shore may involve resloping the site, installing structural protection , or planting vegetation (or combination of these). Note that these practices may have adverse effects (such as shoreline armoring) and may require federal or state authorizations, so they should be carefully planned and executed. Photos 1 and 2 show two streambank stabilization projects.

Natural Resource Benefits. Reducing erosion along streambanks and shorelines protects water quality and enhances aquatic habitat by reducing suspended solids in water. Water quality is also improved if the stabilization efforts enhance the ability of the system to filter out nutrients in runoff.

Photo 1: Students and an NRCS employees plant willow cuttings along restored streambank, held in place with fabric, in Montana. Photo 2: One year after stabilization.

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Stream Crossing (578)

It is not always possible to completely prevent access to streams. In those situations, a stream crossing may be useful. This conservation practice involves creating a stabilized area to allow animals, people, and equipment to cross a stream at a selected point. It applies mostly to animal agriculture operations that are pasture-based or those that move animals, people, or equipment across a stream regularly. Photos 1a, 1b, 2, and 3 show animal stream crossings.

Natural Resource Benefits. A stream crossing protects water quality by restricting crossing to a location designed to handle the traffic. This reduces erosion and improves aquatic habitat. Additional water quality improvements are realized if animals are prevented from loafing in a stream and depositing manure and urine directly in the water. A stream crossing can improve human and animal safety and the efficiency of farm operations by improving access to fields or pastures.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo a1: Before a stream crossing. Photo 1b: After: the same stream crossing. Photo 2: Stream crossings help keep streambanks intact and waterways free of nutrients. Photo 3: This farm in Virginia has stream crossings to ensure cows stay out of streams while moving between paddocks.

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Watering Facility (614)

This practice is used to provide drinking water for livestock or wildlife. Water sources greatly impact the patterns of grazing livestock. Photos 1-5 show several different types of watering facilities.

Natural Resources Benefits. Watering facilities can be developed as an alternative to livestock entering a stream or pond, thereby protecting water quality. Watering facilities can improve animal distribution and use of the vegetation, which protects soil and vegetation health and enhances wildlife habitat.

Photos described clockwise starting upper left. Photo 1: A USDA specialist and rancher check an automated watering trough that supplies drinking water for cattle and wildlife. Photo 2: NRCS works with Oglala Sioux Tribe members to get reliable livestock water with 13 watering facilities. Photo 3: A watering facility with a livestock shelter structure in the background. Photo 4: A concrete watering facility. Photo 5: A calf at a stock water tank in Montana.

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Footnotes: These materials were developed with funding from the USDA NRCS through an interagency agreement with the U.S. EPA

Photos, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of USDA NRCS or Jill Heemstra, University of Nebraska

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