Livestock and streams

By Steve Boyles, OSU Extension Beef Specialist

A stream crossing will control animal and vehicles crossing the stream. It can also be used to control access point for livestock watering. Pastures with streams have areas where the animals have chosen spots to cross the stream. These areas are usually the best locations to construct the stream crossing. The animals choose these areas because of stable footing and ease of crossing. Improving the existing crossing with the livestock’s needs in mind will encourage the livestock use. Livestock avoid soft, muddy, and rocky streambeds. They prefer a firm gravel bottom to walk on. They need to be able to see the bottom in order to use the area as a water source.

The primary component of a stream crossing is a heavy layer of gravel thick enough to support the animals. The size of the gravel affects how long the cattle spend in the crossing. Aggregate with about 1.50 inch diameter is large enough (that is, uncomfortable enough) to keep the animals from loitering but small enough to allow the animals access. The flow of the stream has to slow enough not to wash the aggregate away. Geotextile material can be used in streams with unstable streambeds. Stream crossings should be at least 10 feet wide. The ramps entering and exiting the channel should not be steeper than 4:1 slope (rise:run).

Livestock stream exclusion

One area of concern in grazing management is the impact of pasture management on streams within the pasture. Streams with continuously stocked and overgrazed pastures often have little vegetation on the banks and are wide, shallow, and muddy. These types of pastures have an erosion concern and nutrient run off into the stream. Complete exclusion of the livestock from the stream seems to be the solution, but the winding nature of many of the streams, flood damage to the fence, and the need for livestock water make complete exclusion impractical. Check with local conservation district personnel about possible cost-share programs and requirement regarding stream exclusion.

There are other alternatives to fencing livestock out of streams. These include rotational and management-intensive grazing systems that provide alternative water sources. Wisconsin studies have shown that rotational grazing systems can be an alternative to grassy buffer strips in regard to bank stability and in-stream habitat. Virginia Tech research concluded that the presence of an off-stream water source for grazing cattle reduced the time cattle spent near the stream. Cattle given a choice will drink from a spring-fed water trough 92% of the time compared to drinking from a stream. Providing an alternative source of good clean water in a trough and adequate forage will reduce stream bank erosion, sediment and sediment-bound pollutants, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and fecal bacteria.

Livestock use area protection

These are protected areas that are paved with asphalt or concrete or constructed with, and surfaced with, aggregate. These areas are designed to protect the pasture, soil, and water quality from being abused. Pastures can be plugged, or trampled, by the grazing animals during the spring or other extended wet periods. This trampling can lead to plant death or thinning of the stand. The resulting mud can reduce animal performance. Mud 4 to 8 inches deep will reduce gain by 14% and mud 8 to 24 inches deep will reduce gain by 25%. The damaged pastures are susceptible to soil erosion. Run off from damaged pastures can degrade surface waters with sediment and manure. Excessive soil compaction will reduce rain infiltration and plant growth.

Livestock heavy use areas or pads should be located outside the flood plains. If the pad is located close to a watercourse, run off and manure from the pad should be managed to protect the stream from pollution. These areas should be located at least 300 feet away from neighboring residences and away from wells. A manure management system should be designed to handle any accumulated manure on the pad.

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