In simplistic terms, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a pasture-based operation as one that does not confine animals for more than 45 days in a 12-month period or has vegetation present in the production area year round. The following recommendations are meant to help producers understand how to interpret the law. It is preferable for operations to maintain a pasture status rather than being designated an animal feeding operation (AFO). For open lots, barnyards, and pasture operations (including corn stalk and other forage grazing):
1. In general, maintain vegetation (or crop residues), keep animals from congregating in the same place frequently, and limit the access they have to surface water.
2. Manage grazing and temporary feeding areas to maintain vegetative cover in all areas of your pasture or field. This is key because regulators look at vegetative cover as the first indicator of whether an operation is an animal feeding operation or a pasture operation.
3. Do not confine animals on an area devoid of vegetation for more than 45 days in a 12-month period. It does not have to be a permanently fenced-in area; this applies to any fenced area, not just a penned area. This part of the rule is meant to exclude things such as working facilities and load-out areas.
4. If a feeding area is needed, for example, to provide supplemental cattle feed for more than 45 days, locate the area where runoff will not enter streams or water bodies. Or install a grass buffer, vegetative treatment system, or containment between your open lot or barnyard and streams or watercourses.
5. Avoid allowing livestock direct contact with surface water. If streams or other surface waters are needed for livestock water consumption, a designated area should be designed to minimize animal access, erosion, and potential water quality problems.
6. Keep gates open, and allow free access to pastures and rangeland. Use designated access lanes, constructed stabilized areas, stream crossings, and prescribed grazing. Manage cattle traffic to feed and water so that vegetation and grass are maintained.
7. Keep animal moving. Don't allow them to completely destroy the vegetation in an area. Use fences, feeders, and mineral supplements to alter where animals congregate. If animals are about to destroy all of the vegetation in a supplemental feeding area, move the feeding area before it looks like a dirt lot.
Essentially, if there is vegetation present, then you are O.K. If not, and it looks as if you might be impacting the environment, then you probably are. Even pasture-based operations are still required to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act.
A productive pasture is not only economically advantageous but will also be environmentally sustainable. For more information on pasture management, see the tag below on "pasture operation" and the following CAFO fact sheet Pasture-Based Operations: Could Part of My Operation Be an AFO?.
Author: Chris Henry, Biological Systems Engineering, University of Nebraska