U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska

 

Date of this Version

2004

Comments

Published in J. Anim. Sci. 2004. 82(E. Suppl.):E255–E263.

Abstract

Grazing animals and pasture production can affect water quality both positively and negatively. Good management practices for forage production protect the soil surface from erosion compared with conventionally produced crops. Grazing animals and pasture production can negatively affect water quality through erosion and sediment transport into surface waters, through nutrients from urine and feces dropped by the animals and fertility practices associated with production of high-quality pasture, and through pathogens from the wastes. Erosion and sediment transport is primarily associated with high-density stocking and/ or poor forage stands. The two nutrients of primary concern relating to animal production are N and P. Nitrogen is of concern because high concentrations in drinking water in the NO3 form cause methemoglobinemia (blue baby disease), whereas other forms of N (primarily nitrite, NO2) are considered to be potentially carcinogenic. Phosphorus in the PO4 form is of concern because it causes eutrophication of surface water bodies. The effect of grazing animals on soil and water quality must be evaluated at both the field and watershed scales. Such evaluation must account for both direct input of animal wastes from the grazing animal and also applications of inorganic fertilizers to produce quality pastures. Watershed-scale studies have primarily used the approach of nutrient loadings per land area and nutrient removals as livestock harvests. A number of studies have measured nutrient loads in surface runoff from grazed land and compared loads with other land uses, including row crop agriculture and forestry. Concentrations in discharge have been regressed against standard grazing animal units per land area. Watersheds with concentrated livestock populations have been shown to discharge as much as 5 to 10 times more nutrients than watersheds in cropland or forestry. The other major water quality concern with grazing animals is pathogens, which may move from the wastes into surface water bodies or ground water. Major surface water quality problems associated with pathogens have been associated with grazing animals, particularly when they are not fenced out from streams and farm ponds. This paper presents an overview of water quality issues relating to grazing animals.