Agriculture and Environment: Beef

Better Management Practices: Siting & Constructing Operations

Where producers locate their operations is often the single largest factor that contributes to subsequent environmental impacts.

Most nonpoint-source pollution problems occur in the vicinity of watering and supplemental feeding, and along fences or resting areas where cattle tend to congregate.

Such concentrations can reduce vegetative cover and can compact the soil so that erosion is more likely and water percolation is diminished (Florida Cattlemen's Association 1999).

Nonpoint-source pollution problems
There are several ways to manage the placement of such activities so as to reduce their impacts. For example, placing supplemental feeding and mineral stations a reasonable distance (30 metres) away from stormwater drains, streams, drainage canals, ponds, lakes, wetlands, wells, and sinkholes can prevent such problems.

The development of alternative water sources can also attract animals away from streams, drainage canals, and lakes (Florida Cattlemen's Association 1999). Leaving or planting small, scattered clusters of trees in upland areas of pastures can provide shade and keep cattle away from water sources as a way to keep cool. In general, feeding stations, portable water toughs, and shade structures should be moved periodically to prevent waste accumulation, loss of cover, and compaction of soil.

Special attention to water sources
In some cases it is impossible to locate facilities outside of sensitive areas. In those cases, other techniques should be employed to help keep sediment, nutrients, and organic matter out of surface waters.

Biological filters (biofilters) of marshes, ponds, or other natural or constructed wetlands can assimilate many nutrients and sediments. In some cases it will be necessary to re-establish natural flow patterns, plug drainage canals, or divert water to recreate the natural hydrology of an area to take advantage of bioremediation options.

Temporary holding areas
Locations for any temporary holding areas should also be carefully planned, as they have the potential to concentrate large amounts of pollution. Cow pens and other temporary holding areas should be located more than 60 meters (200 feet) away from waterways and water sources to prevent runoff and contamination.

For existing holding areas that cannot be moved and that are located near water bodies, filter strips, sediment traps, grass planting in seasonal waterways, retention and detention ponds, and planting or berms can minimise the transport of pollutants to water bodies.

Uncontrolled human activities
Cattle are not the only causes of soil erosion or water quality problems in beef production systems, however. Human activities such as land clearing; culvert installation; road, ditch, and canal construction and maintenance; pasture renovation; and cultivation of forage crops can all expose soil and contribute to nutrient loading.

Planting cover crops immediately after removing vegetation for infrastructure development should be standard practice. Strips of grass should be maintained along drains and ditches. The number of vehicle and animal crossings of streams and canals should be minimised. To discourage erosion, vegetation should not be cut too short near waterways and clippings should be kept from waterways.

Discharges from cow/calf operations
Cow/calf operations are generally low-intensity forms of agricultural production with relatively low levels of pollutants discharged off the farms. Cow/calf operations may contribute to elevated levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, sediment, bacteria, and biological oxygen demand (BOD) in surface waters, though at much lower levels than feedlot operations. Manure from cow/calf operations can also contribute to water quality problems both from runoff and direct contamination (Florida Cattlemen's Association 1999).

The potential for discharges from cow/calf operations to cause water quality violations varies greatly, depending on soil type, slope, drainage features, stocking rate, nutrient management, pest management, or activities in wetlands. In general, areas where cattle tend to congregate or have access to water bodies have the greatest potential for pollution (Florida Cattlemen's Association 1999).

Proper siting of these operations is the best way to maintain water quality. By contrast, low-density grazing on native range has the lowest pollution potential. There are better practices that minimise water quality concerns, but it will also probably be necessary to work with a number of ranches in a watershed to address cumulative impacts rather than working one ranch at a time.

Reducing soil compaction
Cattle can cause significant compaction of soils. One way to reduce this problem is to use mobile water, feeding, or mineral supplement locations. Rotating pasture use is also a way to avoid prolonged impacts. Some ranches use moveable fences or herders to keep herds from compacting soils in key areas. Finally, some heavier, clay soils are more subject to compaction; if pastures are located on such soils, every effort should be made to move cattle onto lighter soil when heavy rain is likely.


Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press

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