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Diversion system reduces feedlot contamination in snowmelt runoff

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Underwood, N.D. – In the summer of 2008, surface water monitoring equipment was installed at a feedlot near Underwood, N.D. Three gauging stations were installed to monitor nutrient levels in the runoff adjacent to the feedlot as well as further downstream.

According to a summary in the 2012 North Dakota State University (NDSU) Beef Report, “Three years of feedlot runoff monitoring at a North Dakota Discovery Farm showed that spring snowmelt is the major contributor to nitrogen loading of feedlot runoff.”

Diversion system

As a result of the initial data collection, a clean-water diversion system was constructed at the feedlot to decrease the amount of water that washed through the feedlot in the spring.

“Behind the feedlot, there is a line of trees, and there is a huge accumulation of snow in the winter in those trees. During the spring, the snow melts and most of that water would go through the feedlot and wash into the ditch,” describes Paulo Flores, nutrient management specialist at Carrington Research Extension Center at NDSU.

Flores has been on the project for the last two years and notes that the water diversion system appears to be a successful management practice.

“After the water diversion was put in place, because there is less water going through the feedlot, there are significantly fewer suspended sediments and nutrients being washed into the ditch and then into the waterway,” he says.

Although nutrient loads in the runoff are still high at the gauge station closest to the feedlot, they are reduced significantly by the time they reach the station that is furthest from the feedlot, approximately half a mile downstream.

Reduced water flow

“Today, the volume of the water that’s coming to the gauge is much smaller because all of the water that resulted from the snowmelt is being diverted around the feedlot,” he explains.

Because the volume of water has been reduced, it is able to soak into the grassy waterway, where the nutrients may then be absorbed by the soil or taken up by plants.

“We haven’t collected plant or soil samples from the waterway,” he comments, noting that the research team has not yet determined why the diminished water flow is resulting in cleaner water at the third gauge station.

Using a water diversion system to maintain uncontaminated runoff from the feedlot is especially significant for the Underwood Farm because the operation is located in a drainage that leads to the Missouri River, which is about five miles from the farm.

“We are trying to generate data that can be used in future discussions about regulations on ranches regarding water contamination, so those can be based on science and not in assumptions,” Flores remarks. “The other thing is putting some numbers on management practices that are in place on farms to measure their effectiveness on protecting water quality.”

Data collection

Water quality monitoring projects have been taking place on three different Discovery Farms in North Dakota, located in Barnes, Cass and McLean counties. Data collection includes water quality with an emphasis on nutrient loading, sediment loads, soil analysis and meteorological information.

The Underwood Farm in McLean County, located in central North Dakota, was chosen as a representation of medium-sized feeding operation in the state.

“Different producers have different situations,” Flores remarks. “But, if we have a situation where we have a lot of water coming through the feedlot, from snowmelt or from fields around the feedlot, and we can break that water movement by diverting it, I think we will see positive results regarding water quality.”

Best management practices

Water contamination from livestock production facilities is a concern in North Dakota, as well as throughout the United States. Data from the Underwood Farm and similar projects help to evaluate the effectiveness of various practices designed to reduce environmental impacts while maintaining farm profitability.

The Discovery Farm project is a collaboration of NDSU Extension, the U.S. Geological Survey, North Dakota Department of Health, North Dakota Water Commission and the farms’ cooperators.

“The idea to have water diverted around his feedlot was the farm operator’s idea. The system has been in place since 2011, and the results since then have shown that the diversion has worked pretty well,” Flores says.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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