Options for pasturing livestock near water in Michigan

Learn how to reduce the impact of livestock on stream banks and water quality by implementing these management practices.

Michigan has more than 400,000 acres of pasture land and over 36,000 miles of streams. Stream banks and water quality can be positively influenced when just a few simple management practices are implemented.

Pastures are greening up and we will soon see livestock out grazing and enjoying the season’s fresh new grass. Before turning livestock onto a pasture that is adjacent to the surface water, check to see that fencing and watering stations are suited to keep animals from degrading water quality.

Many feel that livestock manure is the biggest reason to keep animals out of the water. While this is a concern, the bigger problem is the erosion they create along stream banks. This erosion can be a constant source of sediment getting into the stream every time it rains, not just when the livestock are present. Often times, there is also shade along the stream bank, which invites the animals to linger for much of the day, which then creates a larger non-vegetated area, resulting in even more erosion.

Sediment and pathogens are primary pollutants in surface waters. When the sediments also contain livestock manure from areas where livestock congregate, the problem is intensified. In addition, when allowed to stand in the streams, direct deposition of urine and manure leads to contamination with organic matter, nutrients and pathogens. Wildlife, including deer and geese, can also contribute to the nutrient and bacterial contamination of streams. A study in the Finger Lake region of New York found that geese were the dominate source of E. coli, representing 44.7 to 73.7 percent of the total sources in four sub-watersheds, followed by cows, representing up to 21.1 percent, then deer and humans. Non-point source pollution comes from many sources. Management of livestock decreases their impact on stream banks and water quality.

Researchers have looked at management practices to reduce impact of livestock on creeks. Here are a few simple steps that can be taken.

Use exclusion. Keeping animals out of a stream requires good sturdy fence and proper placement. Low areas are wet much of the year and experience flooding. Build the fence far enough away from the stream so posts have a good footing and the fence will not be torn out by debris during flooding.

Flash grazing. This limits access to the riparian area for a maximum of three consecutive days not more than three times per year. Allow grazing when the footing is more solid. Select plants for the riparian area that grow well in wet conditions. Plants that do well under these conditions include reed canarygrass, switchgrass, smooth bromegrass, red clover, Italian ryegrass, timothy, Alsike clover, and Ladino clover. Reed canarygrass and smooth bromegrass are very aggressive and can take over if they are not grazed intensively. More information on planning pastures near streams can be found in MSU's Grazing Streamside Pastures

Livestock watering plan. Livestock need a good supply of clean water. The best watering system will vary depending upon resources available, the size of the herd, as well as the type of grazing system. In general, access to surface water, gravity flow of water to a tank, or pumping of water to a tank are the primary ways of getting water to grazing livestock. Typically, we think of pumps as the electric pumps we use at the farmstead, but there are many types of pumps available to use in more remote areas. For example, solar pumps, sling pumps driven by flowing water, nose pumps – where livestock operate it themselves and pump water from the creek – as well as wind powered, gasoline, diesel, electric and power takeoff driven pumps are all options. Each pump has its strengths and weaknesses and will have to be analyzed for each individual situation. More details on water systems are available in The ABCs of Livestock Watering System by Ben Bartlett.

To learn more about these management practices, contact your local MSU Extension office. In addition, assistance in planning, designing and in some cases, cost share for grazing, fencing and watering system plans are available through your local Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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