Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Small-Scale Farmers and the Environment: How to be a Good Steward


Good stewardship is important for everyone, including small- scale farmers. Using best management practices can protect the environment. These practices can also improve the health and well-being of your animals and increase your farm’s profits. The first step is to evaluate your farm. By adopting management practices suited to it, you can protect your investments as well as the environment.


Small-scale farms make up 94% of the farms in the United States. They contribute significantly to the nation’s food supply and to local economies. They strengthen rural communities and contribute to a diverse and pleasing rural landscape.

Exceeding $100 billion annually, animals and animal products account for the majority of U.S. agricultural products. However, livestock and poultry farms, regardless of size, are facing increasing attention about the way they affect the environment. Many factors can affect a farm’s



impact on the environment. These factors include the animal type (kind), size, and number; the distance to water; the soil type; the weather; and the distance to neighbors. They will be discussed in the section titled “What to Consider When Evaluating Your Farm.”

Good Stewardship

Good environmental stewardship means using land and animals in a way that protects and improves the environment. Environ- mental stewardship begins by evaluating your farm to

identify likely pollution sources and their possible effect on the surrounding environment. The Small Farms Environmental Stewardship Check List on page 10 can serve as a starting point.

Overgrazing pastures; applying too much manure; giving animals free access to streams, ponds, wetlands, or marshes; mismanaging manure; and allowing excessive erosion can reduce water quality.

Possible Pollutants and Nuisances on Animal Farms

The following seven pollutants and/or nuisances are commonly found on small farms: manure, eroded soil, bacteria, odor, ammonia, dust, flies, and rodents.


Properly managed manure:

  • Contains nutrients, or beneficial material, that improves the
  • Provides plant nutrients for growing
  • Can supplement or replace
  • Can be sold as a farm product if properly treated (Figure 1).
  • Can be used as fertilizer to recycle carbon in the soil and reduce carbon in the

Figure 1. Some farmers actually make money from manure. (Photo courtesy of USDA)

If not managed well, manure can lead to fly and odor problems. If rain washes manure into nearby streams or wells, the nitrogen and phosphorus found in manure can cause poor water quality. For more information, see the Small Farms fact sheet titled “Manure on Your Farm: Asset or Liability?”

Eroded soil

When grass is not main- tained on pastures, eroded soil can wash into streams and ponds. Soil can also be washed from crop fields that are not protected with erosion control practices.


Disease-causing bacteria found in manure and dead animals can enter streams, ponds, and wells.


Poorly managed animal barns, stored manure, manure- spread fields, or poorly managed pastures can cause odor.


Ammonia nitrogen, a gas, is released from manure. At high levels, ammonia can cause animal and human health conditions. Even at low levels, ammonia can affect both animals and humans. Rainfall can return ammonia nitrogen to the earth where it can cause poor water quality.

Ammonia nitrogen gas from manure can affect both animals and humans.


Small dust particles in the air can bother humans and animals and be a nuisance when they settle. They can also cause health conditions when they are present in high amounts and for a long time.


Besides being a nuisance, flies can transmit diseases.




Rodents like rats and mice can transfer diseases to other areas of the farm or nearby properties.

What to Consider When Evaluating Your Farm

As farmers evaluate their farm, they should consider:

  • Animal type, size, and number
  • Distance to water
  • Soil type
  • Weather
  • Distance to neighbors

Animal type, size, and number

The type, size, and numbers of animals affect the amount of management required for your farm.

Overstocking causes most of the water quality damage on small-scale livestock farms. It occurs when too many animals

are kept on too few acres. Over- stocking can strip areas of pasture, increasing polluted runoff (Figure 2). On farms where animals are confined

and manure is collected, over- stocking often leads to large

amounts of manure that must be managed.

Keeping too many animals on too few acres causes most of the water quality damage on small- scale livestock farms.

Figure 2. Soil erosion caused by overgrazing sheep. (Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.)

The choice of management practices can affect how many animals the farm will support. Experienced farmers, exten- sion agents, and conservation district personnel can help farmers estimate the number of animals that they can keep


on a small farm while also protecting the environment, improving animal growth, and increasing farm profits.

Distance to water

Farm animals should not be able to enter streams or rivers (Figure 3). In most cases, even ponds should be fenced off (Figure 4) and a tank used to water the animals.

Figure 3. Fenced stream crossings allow animals to get to pasture on both sides of the stream. Concrete or stone on the stream banks helps control erosion. (Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.)

Grass strips, or buffers, should be present between fields where manure is applied. Grass buffers should also be used around streams and ponds to filter the soil washed from fields (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Livestock should be fenced out of ponds and provided with alternative sources of drinking water. (Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.)
Figure 5. Fences keep animals out of the stream and protect the trees and grass on the banks that help control erosion. (Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.)

In areas where the water table is close to the surface, farmers must ensure that polluted water does not seep into water wells used for humans or animals.

Soil type

Sandy or gravelly soils do not absorb water well.



Pesticides, fertilizer, and manure can easily filter through the soil to wells and to streams and ponds.

Clay soils absorb water slowly, so fertilizers and pesticides can wash off of fields during heavy rains.

Pesticides, fertilizer, and manure can easily filter through sandy soil and wash off clay soil.

Loamy soils filter out pollution and absorb water well. Generally, very little soil washes directly or filters into water wells. Hilly pastures often erode and lose soil and fertilizers.


High rainfall increases the chance that pollutants will enter nearby water sources. During rainy seasons, take steps to prevent pollutants from wash- ing into nearby ponds or streams or seeping into wells.

Distance to neighbors

If neighbors live close to the farm, take steps to reduce nuisances like odor, dust, and flies.

Best Management Practices (BMPs)

In general, BMPs are management practices or procedures that protect the environment and maintain or improve the farm’s profits. To be most effective, BMPs should be used for a long time, thus maintaining the farm’s value.

Best Management Practices are management practices that protect the environment and maintain the farm's profits.

The advantages of BMPs include their variety, complete- ness, easy implementation, and flexibility. BMPs range from making simple changes to building structures that hold manure. They can be compre- hensive and consider how the


Plant grass buffers to filter runoff from barns, pastures or cropland, and manure storage areas.

Animal deaths

Manage dead animals by following local rules and regulations. Choices for managing animal deaths include burial, incineration, composting, and rendering. Dead animals should be taken care of promptly to reduce the risk of disease, rodents, odor, or water pollution. For more information, see the Small Farms fact sheet titled “Managing Animal Deaths: Your Options.”

Access to drinking water

To reduce soil erosion, tanks containing drinking water should be located in areas where the ground is stable and grass will filter runoff from the drinking areas before it enters nearby water sources (Figure 6). If farm animals must be

given access to streams or ponds to obtain water, the access should be limited to areas where the banks have been reinforced.

Figure 6. Water tank on stable surface to reduce erosion. (Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS.)

The Next Step

To become a more responsible steward of your land, learn about, plan for, and carry out BMPs. For help and infor- mation, contact your Cooperative Extension office, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services office, or Soil and Water Conservation District office. Local numbers for these agencies are in phone directories; look under your County Government or United States Government, Agriculture Department.


Points to Remember

  • Small farms are an important part of American agriculture.
  • Properly managed manure can reduce the need to purchase

  • The use of Best Manage- ment Practices can pro- tect the environment and help protect your farming

Small Farms Environmental Stewardship Check List

As the steward of your farm, are you aware of and do you use environmentally sound practices?

Read each question and check the appropriate box.

[table img_src=”” img_id=”269″][/table]


Mark Rice, Extension Specialist, North Carolina State University, can be reached at 919-515-6794 or

Project Manager

The author wishes to thank Diane Huntrods, the LPES Project Manager, at MWPS, Iowa State University, for editing this fact sheet and coordinating its completion.


The author wishes to thank Marion Simon, Kentucky State University, and Peter Wright, Cornell University, for their review of this fact sheet.

For More Information

Educational Resources–To view the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Stewardship (LPES) curriculum resources–To view the Kansas Livestock Environmental Stewardship Online Assessments.–To obtain state Cooperative Extension contacts

Environmental Regulations Resources–To obtain state environmental agency contact

Small Farm Resources

1-800-583-3071–USDA-CSREES Small Farm hotline

State-Specific Resources

The local contact for your land-grant university Cooperative Extension program is listed in the phone book under “Cooperative Extension” or “(county name) County Cooperative Extension.

[table img_src=”” img_id=”270″][/table]