Livestock and the Environment

By Ontario Pork - This article looks at livestock farming issues, such as manure management, odour controls and ways to improve water quality.
calendar icon 20 February 2004
clock icon 10 minute read
Ontario Pork Logo

Manure - The Natural Nutrient

Manure is not a waste product and has always been the original fertilizer. As gardeners know, livestock manure provides important natural fertilizers and soil conditioners.

Farmers use manure to:

  • improve crop yields
  • add organic matter to improve the soil quality, including water and nutrient holding capacity
  • reduce runoff and soil erosion potential through improved soil structure
  • encourage growth of beneficial soil organisms

The main nutrients in manure are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Plants need nitrogen for growth, phosphorus for healthy roots, and potassium for protection from wilting, disease, cold and dryness. Regular soil testing allows farmers to apply only the nutrients their crops require, at the times when the crops can best use them. This is good for the environment and makes economic sense for the farmer.

Components of a Nutrient Management Plan:

  • Soil Test Results (identification of nutrients found/or lacking in soil)
  • Manure Test Results (identification of nutrients found in manure)
  • How and When to Apply Nutrients to Crops
  • Calibrating Manure Spreaders for Accurate Application
  • Identification of Potential Environmental Risks
  • Proper Storage of Agricultural Nutrients
  • Contingency Plan (outlines what to do if things go wrong)
  • Good Neighbour Policy

Nutrient Management - An Important Farming Practice

Nutrient management is the science that ensures water quality and soil health are maintained or improved, crop yields are maximized, and manure odour is minimized.

In Ontario, the Nutrient Management Act outlines regulations that farmers must follow when devising their nutrient management strategy. Its purpose is to provide a uniform approach to nutrient management across the province that can be adopted by farmers and municipalities.

Three components of a Nutrient Management Planning Strategy are:

  1. Nutrient management plan.
  2. Proper manure storage construction practices.
  3. At least 240 days of available storage for new liquid manure storages.

If the components of the Nutrient Management Planning Strategy are followed properly, the size of a farm or number of livestock is not an issue. The number of animals allowed on a farm must match the amount of available land.

How Close Is Too Close?

Type of Livestock Livestock Units
Dairy Cows 0.16
China 0.56
Denmark 0.65
United States 0.03
Source: Barrington, Macdonald College

Municipalities enforce minimum distance separation, which identifies the required minimum distance a new barn can be located from a residence and/or business. Minimum distance is determined by the number of livestock units the barn may hold, the type of manure produced, size of the expansion, and other land use factors.

Manure Management

Sustainable livestock production and nutrient management plans require responsible manure application and storage.

Farmers know the amount of manure their animals will produce, and build engineered manure storages accordingly. Liquid manure storage facilities must be large enough to hold all the manure that the animals produce in a barn for up to at least eight months. This storage capacity allows farmers to store the manure until the time is right to spread it on the land.

Modern manure equipment can inject or work manure into the soil, or spread it on top of the land. Some advanced manure equipment uses global positioning system (GPS) technology, including satellite images of a field to apply precise amounts of manure where it’s needed. Some parts of a field may have soil that is already rich in nutrients; other parts of the field may require more fertilizer. This makes good economic and environmental sense.

Odour Management

A certain amount of odour is expected from livestock farms. There are three major sources of odour: barns, manure storages and field application. Farmers are making odour control a priority and many are already using a variety of odour control methods. Industry stakeholders, such as equipment manufacturers, are investing in new and more effective technologies to manage manure odour and researchers are looking for new ways to manage the issue.

Modern manure management practices are reducing odours at each source. For example:

  • Distance from neighbours and prevailing wind patterns are factors when choosing a new barn site. Minimum distance separation calculations must be followed.
  • Engineered, well-maintained concrete manure storages reduce surface area and minimize odour.
  • Many farmers cover their manure storages to reduce odour.
  • Injecting manure or working it into the soil helps reduce odours.
  • Timing of application is usually best on cool days, early mornings, midweek, or when prevailing winds are away from neighbours or nearby communities.

Farmers Follow The Rules

Farmers know that the fundamental roots of agriculture are clean water and healthy soil. They want proper safeguards in place to protect water quality and everyone’s health. Some examples of federal and provincial environmental laws Ontario farmers follow are:

  • Farming and Food Production Protection Act
  • Drainage Act
  • Environmental Protection Act
  • Fisheries Act
  • Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act
  • Ontario Water Resources Act
  • Pesticides Act
Farmers have long been asking for legislation to govern the use of all nutrients applied to the land. In 2003, the Ontario government took significant steps to ensure water quality by introducing three new laws:
  • Nutrient Management Act
  • Source Water Protection Act
  • Drinking Water Act

Being Neighbourly

The practice of spreading manure does not have the severe impact on neighbours one might have assumed3. In a recent study, based on manure spreading schedules that averaged twice per year:

  • 58% of neighbours reported that they did not have to change their normal activities due to nearby livestock farmer operation
  • 83% of neighbours never expressed a concern about the nearby livestock operation
  • livestock farmers have consistently been proactive in the effort to maintain good neighbour relations.3
Cultivating goodwill and trust in the community is paramount to the successful livestock farmer. Farmers do not want to interfere with the lifestyles of their neighbours and readily welcome the opportunity to explain their farming practices.

Responsible Growth Is The Key

A growing world population who needs to be fed with less land available for growing food presents the ultimate challenge for farmers. Canadians are fortunate to have such a land rich country. The key is to plan for the future responsibly, in both urban and farm development.

Canadian livestock farmers are poised to meet this demand with a delicate balance between environment, community and economics. To maintain the balance, they must protect the environment, consider potential impacts their farm may have on the community, and aim for a fair return on their investment.

Tuned Into Public Concerns

Farmers follow best management practices and continually invest in research to:

  • Better protect water wells and decommission abandoned wells
  • Restrict livestock access to waterways when neccessary
  • Establish buffer zones of plants and erosion control measures along waterways
  • Enhance milkhouse water treatments
  • Upgrade septic systems
  • Ensure air quality is not jeopardized
  • Minimize potential human health issues, such as E.coli

Water Quality - Important To People and Animals

Watercourses can be a natural creek or stream or a constructed municipal drain. Farmers have helped to improve water quality by:

  • reducing soil erosion and agricultural input runoff into waterways
  • improving the handling of fertilizers, manure and pesticides
  • protecting waterways with buffer zones, dedicated areas of land, used to preserve soil and maintain water quality; and windbreaks, rows of trees or shrubs, used to prevent soil erosion and minimize odour.

Tapping into the Facts

Canada’s renewable fresh water resources are 11 times greater than the United States - 28.7 million gallons of fresh water for every Canadian, compared to 2.6 million gallons for every American.

Daily water use per human is estimated at 227 litres per day for all uses.

A pig uses 7 litres of water per day.1

A mature beef cow uses between 35 to 66 litres of water per day.2

One inch of rain puts 100,000 litres of water on an acre of land.

Average liquid manure application = 15,000 litres on an acre of land.

Commitment To Research

One thing is certain - if we are to feed growing human populations worldwide, while preventing damage to the environment and natural processes - the agricultural industry must continue to make advances.

Finding new and better ways to raise livestock while protecting the environment is important to farmers. Investing in research is part of their commitment to maintain the balance between responsible growth, protecting the environment and the health of all citizens.

  • University of Guelph and Manitoba researchers are tackling the odour issue at the source - changing animals’ diets can minimize nitrogen and phosphorus excretion losses and reduce manure odour.

  • The University of Waterloo is evaluating liquid manure storage systems to assess potential impacts on groundwater.

  • The Advanced Manure Management Technologies for Ontario scientifically evaluates manure management technologies to determine their effect on things such as groundwater and air quality.

  • Ontario’s pork farmers are funding research to look at the use of swine manure to control soil-borne diseases, such as potato blight.

  • The Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatoon determined the air 600 metres downwind of a swine barn is as fresh as air 2.4 kilometres upwind of a swine barn. The researchers concluded air 600 metres downwind of a hog barn does not pose more risk of infection than fresh air.

Ontario Farmers Lead By Example

Farmers are recognized as world leaders in environmental management, practices such as replenishing the soil, improving water quality, and minimizing pesticide use. In the last decade, over 26,000 Ontario farmers have made environmental improvements through the Environmental Farm Plan program. Over $100 million of their own money has been invested in on-farm environmental improvements, including new manure storages, tree planting and stream restorations.

When the scent of manure is in the air or an environmental issue is on the news, we might stop to think about livestock farming for a minute. The reality is less than 3% of Canadians farm today, leaving few people who actually know the hows and whys of today’s livestock farms and their environmental practices.

Farmers are the original environmentalists and they strive to maintain a balance: their land, animals and businesses depend on it. This resource is designed to give you the farmers’ perspective and answer some common questions about livestock and the environment.

Location Pig Livestock
Ontario 0.16
China 0.56
Denmark 0.65
United States 0.03
Source: Barrington, Macdonald College

Canada has a rich land base with 168 million acres of farm land: approximately 2/3 suitable for growing crops and 1/3 suitable for grazing livestock.

Today’s farms are larger than in the past, but are still operated with the same core values and commitment. 98% of farms are family owned as families work together to grow crops and raise livestock.

One human pollutes (on a volume basis) approximately 100 gallons of clean water per day.

Two counties in North Carolina produce more hogs than all of Canada.


1 Fleming, R., Hocking, D., MacAlpine, M., and Johnston, J., 1999, Investigation of manure production in typical 3-site hog facilities.

2 Myths and Facts, Ontario Farm Animal Council

3 Neighbours and Livestock Operations: Perceptions and Realities. Dr. W. Caldwell, and M. Williams, University of Guelph, 2002

Source: Ontario Pork - December 2003

© 2000 - 2023 - Global Ag Media. All Rights Reserved | No part of this site may be reproduced without permission.