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Farms play an important role in water quality


It's finally springtime and, after a long winter, many people want to get outside and get busy with outdoor projects. That includes local farmers. For them, spring means that after a long winter of mostly barn living, their animals can finally get out, kick up their heels, and enjoy the spring grasses and warm, sunny weather.

However, we have to get through the spring rain and snowmelt season first. With the thought of floodwaters comes the question of what each of us can do to help prevent pollution and environmental hazards from flowing down or leaching into our local rivers and lakes.

Farms and farmers are an important part of these thoughts and actions. The decisions that farmers, especially those with cattle, make regarding animal manure can have huge impacts, both negatively or positively, on water quality.

There are usually two ways that livestock are raised, either open grazing (in a pasture where there is enough grass to feed them) or in feedlots (which, according to the state of Minnesota, is an area where livestock are fed and housed long enough to produce a manure stockpile).

In Carlton County, most farms could be classified as feedlots, since livestock are not grazing year-round and must be fed stored hay and/or feed during the winter, said Ryan Clark, Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District agricultural water quality certification specialist. He added that the manure from this scenario is stockpiled until it can be spread onto the fields.

Most local farmers, however, would describe their livestock area as the "wintering area," "barnyard," or "lot area."

Whether livestock are open-grazed or kept in feedlots/barnyards, serious consideration must be given to protecting the quality of ground and surface waters, which is one of the most important concerns for most environmental professionals.

SWCD water quality technician Melanie Bomier said the EPA measures for E. coli as an indicator, rather than measuring for every single disease-causing pathogen.

"E. coli indicates that the water may be contaminated with fecal waste, and these wastes may also contain pathogens that can cause illness," Bomier said. "High E. coli levels don't necessarily mean the water will make you sick, but it does indicate that we need to take a closer look at where it's coming from."

In some areas of Carlton County, E. coli levels are higher after rainfall events which, Bomier suggests, is "running off from somewhere," which could include from pastures and barnyards.

Both open grazing and barnyard methods present positives and negatives when it comes to handling animal manure, and farmers may need a little assistance in analyzing the situation and making choices or changing operations.

The following are a few of the Best Management Practices and regulations that farmers (whether they have just a few or lots of animals) should consider in relation to manure storage and dispersal.

Open grazing, according to advocates, is better for animals and humans than feedlots/barnyards. However, open grazing can also do consistent and considerable damage to the environment, especially by farms where pastureland is adjacent or close to waterways, rivers, ponds or lakes. Open-grazed livestock defecate wherever and whenever, and their manure is usually dealt with gradually by Mother Nature.

Where pastures are fenced so that livestock have access to drink from lakes, rivers, streams or ponds, there is a big chance that much of the fecal waste and bacteria will end up in the water, either directly from livestock or rain washing it into the water. Although the farmer has the right to use the water resources within his pasture lands for his livestock, he also has the responsibility to protect the quality of that water.

In many cases, controlled access to the water source can prevent much of the animal manure from contaminating the water.

"Controlled access" means that fencing is generally used to restrict livestock access to that water. The ag professionals at Carlton SWCD and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service can help farmers assess their pasture and water situation; identify the best choice for protecting the water; ensure the cattle have the best possible access to food and water; and reduce the cost and inconvenience of drastic changes to their system.

The open pasture method can also be used during the winter, according to Clark, by out-wintering, where the cattle are fed stored hay out on the pasture during the winter. The farmer will rotate or alternate areas of out-wintering, to evenly spread the manure deposited by the cattle. This pasture-based winter feeding eliminates the need to store and haul manure.

In feedlots or barnyards, the manure has to be manually moved, stored, and eventually dealt with, and there are a lot of regulations to follow.

In fact, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has ruled that any feedlot with 10 animal units (AU) in any area outside of shoreland must be registered with the MPCA. (One AU is 1,000 pounds, based loosely on one beef cow, and shoreline is defined by land 1,000 feet from a lake and 300 feet from a stream or river.) "This regulation involves an inspection to ensure no runoff conditions exist that would pollute surface waters," Clark said. "MPCA will work with a violating feedlot to come up with a plan to address runoff issues, and SWCD and NRCS have funding options for these projects and practices."

Clark also shared the following BMPs for typical feedlot/barnyard situations that require manure spreading.

"Farmers should avoid winter hauling and spreading of manure at all costs," the ag water specialist said. "This can lead to manure runoff problems when the snow melts." (This is under the assumption that there is sufficient manure storage space available.)

He added that farmers should store manure until appropriate timing for crop uptake of manure nutrients. They should apply manure in the fall or the spring when soil temperatures are below 50 degrees or in the growing season when crops are actively growing.

When it comes to application, Clark said that farmers should apply manure at agronomic rates for specific crops - i.e., in regards to pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus per acre required for crop production. They should also incorporate the manure into tillable ground, by injection or tilling in, as soon as possible when conventional tillage is used, to reduce the chance of environmental loss of nitrogen.

Next week, we'll look at the use of manure pits on farms, why they are important and how they should be dealt with when they aren't of use anymore. The agricultural specialists at Carlton SWCD are always ready and able to help farmers examine their choices and discover the environmental impacts.