Beef Cattle Grazing

Water quality can be directly benefited by well-managed pastures.  Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) is an approach that is especially effective.

Drinkable, swimmable and fishable water are attributes we would like to take for granted in the natural world.  However, as we now know all too well, human activities like agriculture have changed that assumption.

And while farming practices are certainly at least partly to blame for some water quality issues in Vermont and other places, they also have the opportunity to present important solutions.  In particular, livestock farms can help.  Pastures should be managed in a way that always keeps soil organic matter in mind. 

A basic rule of thumb is that keeping farm soils well-covered with growing plants at all times is key for conserving water quality.  Covered soils have a healthier structure which allows plants to better absorb nutrients and water. Excess water is then slowly released into waterways. 

Water quality problems can happen when livestock are allowed excessive access to water streams because they usually defecate after drinking.  In addition, manure runoff from pastures or crops can reach streams in the course of heavy rainfall.  Animals also enjoy gathering in shady areas which, if  unattended, can potentially degrade nearby stream banks with their  hoofs over time.

Then, in order to maintain water quality, riparian buffers must be fenced out.  Management intensive grazing (MiG) is a powerful pasture management tool to promote water quality because animals are rotated through fenced-in paddocks and water is brought to them in water tubs. MiG can also promote riparian management by deferring grazing, restricting their access to water ways and avoiding stream bank degradation.  Also, because pastures under MIG must always be covered with at least two inches (four inches is better!) of ungrazed forage, soil erosion is minimal.

The Key to Water Quality is Soil Organic Matter

Well-Managed Pasture Protects Water Quality

How Soil Organic Matter (SOM) works:

When soil can not absorb water, that water, along with excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, leave the farm as run-off.  But organic matter can hold 90% of its weight in water.

Soil with 2% organic matter can hold 32,000 gallons of water.  (For context: about 27,000 gallons of water fall on one acre during a 1" rainstorm.)

Soil with 5% organic matter can hold 80,000 gallons of water.

How to Build Soil Organic Matter

Cows on Well-Managed Pasture near Lake Champlain
  • Reduce or eliminate tillage
  • Reduce erosion
  • Rotationally graze and leave plenty of residue
  • Allow pastures enough recovery time before grazing.

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Interested in knowing more about the Center's work or do you have a question we haven't answered here?  Call us at 802-656-5459 and we'll do our best to help.

Woodcut of a farm with people gathering produce and cows grazing


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