Water quality in our streams, rivers and dams is not only important so that people can enjoy the recreational opportunities these freshwater bodies offer, it is also essential for healthy food production as well as clean drinking water.
Contaminants originating from Animal waste are a potential source of contamination to our freshwater systems. These include nutrients such as nitrates, and to a lesser extent, veterinary drugs and hormones used in animal husbandry. But, no matter whether you are farmer who manages a large agricultural enterprise, a smallholder who keeps a few farm animals, or a homeowner with a vast menagerie or even just a few domestic pets, you can implement measures to prevent contamination of local water sources.
As the agricultural sector is considered a potential source of freshwater contaminants, these operations are now regulated, with certain rules imposed for managing animal feeding lots to ensure animal Manure is collected and managed appropriately.
Yet, while large livestock operations are an obvious source of potential contamination, the reality is that any property where animals (livestock or domestic pets) are kept is a potential source of water contamination. The size of the operation is not necessarily a good barometer of its impact, as smaller operations that are not managed properly can have a bigger impact than larger operations where manure is well managed. Therefore, it is clear that anyone who raises or keeps animals on their property can play an important role in preventing contamination of our water resources if they implement a suitable Animal Waste management program.
Animal waste management is by no means a new concept in the agricultural sector. Farm managers have been collecting manure produced by their livestock and utilizing this byproduct as a fertilizer for decades, if not centuries. Manure is high in nutrients that can improve the quality of soils, and are beneficial for growing crops, improving crop yields. Consequently, many smallholders also utilize manure as a valuable fertilizer to grow crops.
However, when manure is not properly managed, these nutrients can leach through soils into groundwater or wash into surface waters with runoff, where they can accumulate, becoming more concentrated over time. This results in nutrient loading, which can lead to algal blooms and eventually lowered oxygen levels in freshwater bodies. Nitrates in high concentrations are also a drinking water contaminant that can have grave health impacts, particularly on infants and pregnant women, and has also been linked to several types of cancer.
It is therefore essential that everyone who keeps animals develops a sound manure management plan. This will not only prevent unwanted water contamination, but can also result in more efficient farming operations. To be successful, an animal waste management plan needs to address the issues of manure generation, storage and disposal on the farm. First, you need to estimate how much manure is generated on your farm. Then you need to decide whether you are going to store the manure on site for composting, or send it off site for composting or disposal. One common method of disposal is to spread it over croplands. But if this method is used, it is best to determine the nutrient requirements of your crop and spread the manure accordingly. Also, bear in mind that the nutrients present in manure are not all available to the plants immediately. So, when using manure as a nutrient source it should be viewed as part of the overall nutrient cycling that takes place on the property, serving as a valuable soil enhancer when used appropriately.
Homeowners can also do their bit by managing the animal waste produced on their property, and following appropriate practices when fertilizing their gardens and lawns to minimize nutrient runoff. Regardless of whether you are a farmer, smallholder or homeowner, you can implement small measures to help improve water quality in your watershed, making the water safer for your community.