The United States Federal Government and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have announced a program to help farmers and ranchers who are suffering from water quality issues due to soil erosion and the effects of grazing. Under the North American Agriculture Research Service (NARS) program, which is managed by NAR, there are over five hundred cooperating states and territories across the country that will work together on a coordinated action plan to reduce agricultural water loss. The National Agriculture Research Service (NARS) is a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). NARs are required to promote agriculture’s competitiveness and enhance the nation’s food supply. NARs have a long standing history in promoting the improvement of the nation’s agricultural base.
“When soil erosion and other undesirable impacts are greatly reduced, crop production can increase,” said USDA chief scientist William Beyer. “Reducing costs and protecting the environment can go hand-in-hand. By improving the ecological condition of the soils, NARs can improve the quality of crop production.” In 2006, the NAR was granted funding for a study to test the impact of livestock on topsoil. The results showed that the reduction of grazing pressure on the topsoil caused soil erosion at an accelerated rate and led to the formation of at least thirteen different invasive species. These invasions threatened the continued existence of the topsoil of various farming districts.
In July of 2006, after two years of research, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it had approved a plan to strengthen the nation’s beef farmers against soil erosion and other types of pollution. The plan, known as the Far West Basin Strategy, focused on beef farms that were located within three miles of streams, rivers, lakes or wetlands. According to the plan, such a distance will decrease the amount of grass that can be destroyed from soil erosion and other harmful impacts. Also, soil erosion and related problems will not negatively impact the production of beef.
This beef farmer-developed program is one of the latest attempts to protect our environment and bolster the nation’s food supply. As with all environmental protection programs, UFA is limited to those areas that have adequate runoff and are in areas already affected by soil erosion. In some areas, there may not be enough grass to sustain cattle feed sales and cattle grazing, resulting in lower production and fewer cattle being produced. Other regions that are considered unsuitable for UFAs include those near urbanized zones, those that are considered too remote to support plantings of trees or vegetation, or those that have limited biological activity.
In the planning stages of the Far West Basin Strategy for beef farmers, UFAs were identified as one of the most problematic issues. According to the EPA, a combination of factors – including soil quality, land use practices and erosion – were deemed responsible for the increasing rate of soil erosion. In order to meet their targets for producing beef and reducing waste in the environment, farmers need to take steps to prevent soil erosion and protect their existing grass fields. UFAs pose significant problems that must be addressed to protect both present and future biodiversity, crop yields and the nation’s food supply.
One of the primary drivers of soil erosion is excessive cattle grazing, which robs vegetation and leads to compaction of the underlying soil. According to the Far West Basin Strategy for beef farmers, one of the best ways to prevent soil erosion is to implement a grazing management plan that coordinates cattle grazing with proper plantings of vegetation to provide more natural habitat. Another solution is to build on already-existing vegetation and improve soil quality through the use of plant cover such as grass and cropland. Increasing vegetation also provides protection from cattle predation. Scientists have identified many species of birds that are sensitive to cattle grazing, and it is nearly impossible to increase the amount of these species without changing the population density of cattle.
Reducing cattle grazing and implementing a range-based grazing management plan can be difficult for a rural farmer in a low-quality, infrequently-sprayed field. However, the development of livestock farms has resulted in many improved products, including milk, eggs and meat, which could help offset some of the problem. Many UFAs are also used in the production of ethanol, as well as many paper products. By reducing beef cattle grazing and using natural or organic feed instead, beef producers can help reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, improve soil quality and reduce soil erosion. Many researchers believe that reducing beef and dairy cow consumption will reduce soil erosion more than any other measure.
A final problem seen in many UFAs is related to the production of feed and other by-products associated with beef production. Feedlot beef farmers typically sell off portions of their herds to beef processors and other buyers, even when the animals are still alive. This often happens without the cattle ever being sold to their original owners. This reduces the herds’ gene pool, which could reduce its ability to resist disease and nutrition problems in the future. A reduction in the number of viable offspring from these cattle could contribute to soil erosion at a local level. For example, the number of cattle producing foals and cows can affect the local and regional ecosystems, and by selling their offspring to outside processors, ranchers can help mitigate any soil erosion that may occur as a result.