February 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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Implementation of a Livestock Systems Environmental Assessment Tool

A self-assessment tool addressing livestock environmental issues was developed and pilot tested. A pilot study evaluated livestock producers response to environmental issues addressed by this tool, identified practices commonly observed to produce a high environmental risk, reviewed alternative delivery strategies, and reported on changes resulting from producer's use of the tool. The resulting Livestock Systems Environmental Assessment was found to be an effective tool for assisting producers in reviewing environmental issues, especially when delivered through local livestock commodity groups.

Rick Koelsch
Biological Systems Engineering
University of Nebraska
Lincoln, Nebraska
Internet address: bsen126@unlvm.unl.edu

Larry Howard
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension
Cuming County
West Point, Nebraska
Internet address: cnty5243@unlvm.unl.edu

Steve Pritchard
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension
Platte County
Columbus, Nebraska
Internet address: sprtchrd@unlvm.unl.edu

Paul Hay
University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension
Gage County
Beatrice, Nebraska
Internet address: cnty5032@unlvm.unl.edu


A "Livestock Systems Environmental Assessment" tool (LSEA) was developed to support Cooperative Extension programs addressing livestock environmental issues in Nebraska. The ability of the tool to assist in identifying environmental strengths, weaknesses, and solutions was pilot tested by 97 livestock producers in three counties. An evaluation was completed 6 to 9 months later by 61 participants.

Environmental programs for the livestock industry are being introduced at a time of escalating public scrutiny including (a) organized community opposition groups to livestock production, (b) major revisions in state and local public policy, and (c) state regulatory inspections of all confined livestock operations greater than 300 animal units relative to operating permit requirements. These issues created a need for an expanded extension role in assisting livestock producers with environmental issues.

As a result of this scrutiny, many efforts to deliver LSEA were met with some reluctance or mixed feelings. However, close collaboration with local livestock commodity groups proved to be an extremely effective method for delivering LSEA. Involvement of the commodity groups' leadership in the initial release of this tool within a county provided critical support and validation of the environmental assessment process.


The goal of LSEA is to reduce the level of environmental risk resulting from livestock production by a producer self-assessment of current practices and systems and identification of high risk situations to be addressed by a more comprehensive environmental planning process. The specific objectives of this pilot evaluation effort were to:

1. Complete an environmental assessment of livestock management practices on 90 Nebraska livestock operations, 2. Evaluate alternative delivery strategies for LSEA, and 3. Evaluate the effectiveness of LSEA in promoting adoption of environmentally sound practices and systems.


LSEA consists of seven worksheets. Three were adapted from Wisconsin's Farm*A*Syst program (manure storage, silage storage, and milking center wastewater). Three new assessment worksheets (land application, odor, and feedlot runoff) and a quantitative worksheet for estimating manure nutrient production were developed. All but the last mentioned worksheet followed the model used by the Farm and Home*A*Syst environmental assessment programs (refer to www.wisc.edu/farmasyst or www.wisc.edu/homeasyst). New worksheets were developed by the authors and all worksheets were reviewed by regulatory, NRCS, and University staff.

Ninety-seven livestock producers from three Nebraska counties participated in the LSEA pilot. Participants were self-selected based upon their attendance of a local extension program focused on LSEA. Participants completed appropriate worksheets and recorded their responses both on their own assessment tool and a separate detachable form shared with the authors. Participants also shared background information about their livestock system, crop system, and manure management system. All reported data is a summary of these responses with no statistical analysis of results.

A variety of methods were used for reaching livestock producers including delivery through commodity groups, allied industry meetings, area network meetings for custom feeding swine organizations, FmHA Gold Medal meetings, and one-on-one contacts. Conclusions relative to delivery methods were based upon recorded observations of six extension field staff involved in this pilot effort. Six to nine months after completion of the assessment tool, 61 participants returned an evaluation survey for the purpose of identifying potential impact. The post assessment involved a mail survey with follow-up by phone of non-return.

Results and Discussion

Program Delivery

A variety of delivery methods were utilized within the three pilot counties. An evaluation of alternative delivery methods was based strictly on qualitative assessments by extension staff involved in the delivery process. Their evaluation included levels of participation by producers, willingness of other organizations to partner in program delivery, and learning environment associated with the assessment process.

Close collaboration with livestock commodity groups proved to be the most effective method for delivering LSEA to local producers based upon extension educator observations. Involvement of the commodity groups' leadership in the initial release of this tool within a county provided critical program support, peer promotion, and validation of the assessment process.

Most other methods of delivery were met with at least some reluctance or mixed feelings. Bankers were fearful of offending their customers and were very reluctant to assist in the delivery of this assessment tool. Contacts with allied industry and pork producing networks yielded a mixed response ranging from significant investment in program promotion to wanting no part of an environmental program. Efforts to use the tool within the Gold Medal program (a Farmers Home Administration sponsored mandatory educational program for producers to secure operating loans) provided mixed results due to the diversified group in attendance.

One-on-one meetings were relatively ineffective unless the producer initiated the request. Extension staff meetings with individual producers was met with some apprehension. Producers typically preferred to participate in small group meetings as opposed to a one-on-one setting. The exchange of ideas among peers was of value for this delivery format. Those who participated in a one-on-one format were the least enthusiastic group in their response to LSEA as illustrated by the impact survey six months later.

Farm Characteristics

The livestock on the participating farms were swine (43 farms with an average inventory of 1218 animals), beef cattle (59 farms with an average inventory of 1346 animals), and dairy cattle (21 farms with an average inventory of 238 animals).

The manure management systems on participating farms included the following characteristics:

- Less than 25% of the crop land managed by these producers received manure within the past 3 years. Only 3 producers reported using their entire land base for manure application in the past 3 years. - Manure was surface applied without incorporation by 63% of participants. - March and November were the most popular months for manure application. Manure was spread by more than 50% of the participating farms during each of the months of December, January, and February.

Assessment Tool Responses

The first worksheet assists a producer in the calculation of manure nutrient production and available nutrients after storage losses. On average, participating livestock operations produced 119,000 pounds of nitrogen and 72,000 pounds of P2O5 equivalent. Based upon worksheet assumptions, most of the phosphorus was available for crop production but less than half of the nitrogen was conserved. High manure nutrient application rates were commonly observed by many producers (see Table 1). An awareness of the size of the manure nutrient resource as well as the current rate of application of manure nutrients (usually excessive) was regarded by the extension educators to be an important eye-opener that impacted the thinking of many producers throughout the use of LSEA.

Table 1
Average manure nutrient application rate versus size of livestock operation. One animal unit = 1000 lbs. live weight
Animal UnitsApplication Rate (lb./ac) for:
Average of all farms326306
Farms with 0-250245239
Farms with 250-500156153
Farms with 500-1000420378
Farms with more than 1000843788

Six worksheets provided a qualitative assessment of risk according to four risk levels. Overall, producers judged their land application practices and livestock yards as representing the greater environmental risk (see Table 2). Key practices essential to manure nutrient management planning were found to be among the major individual deficiencies of livestock operations (see Table 3). The lack of the required Nebraska permits for outdoor lot runoff control as well as inadequate facilities for containing runoff were additional high risk issues identified by producers.

Table 2
Average producer rating of risk for individual worksheets.
Scale is from 1 (low risk) to 4 (high risk).
WorksheetAverage Risk Rating
Livestock manure storage*1.8
Livestock yards management*2.3
Land application of manure*2.3
Silage storage*1.8
Odor management and control2.1
* Addresses surface and ground water issues.

Table 3
Individual practices/systems receiving highest and lowest risk rating by producers for their own livestock operations. Scale is from 1 (low risk) to 4 (high risk).
Practice/SystemAverage Risk Rating
Highest risk ratings:
Knowledge of manure nutrient concentration3.3
Availability of manure application records3.3
Permit for outdoor lot runoff control facility3.1
Availability of a nutrient management plan3.0
Knowledge of manure application rate2.9
Lowest risk ratings:
Distance from drinking water well to silage storage1.1
Frequency of neighbor odor complaints1.3
Distance from nearest surface water source to manure storage1.5
Distance from drinking water well to manure storage1.6
Distance to neighbors1.6

Substantial variation existed in the risk producers assigned to their own operation. The average rating of risk by producers of their livestock operation was 2.2 or slightly greater than a moderate-low risk. Individual producers' average rating ranged from 1.3 to 3.5. Seven producers identified their average risk as greater than 3.0. The self-assessment aspect of this tool shows some livestock operations to have significant environmental risk.

Changes Resulting from LSEA

Sixty-one of 97 participants returned an evaluation survey six to nine months after using LSEA. Producers indicated LSEA was effective in helping them identify their livestock operation's:

  • - Environmental strengths..........54 responses (89%)
  • - Environmental weaknesses.........50 responses (82%)
  • - Priorities for future efforts....52 responses (85%)
  • - Changes in practices.............48 responses (79%).

As a result, in part from their use of LSEA, producers identified the following in regard to changes in manure management practices or systems:

  • - 49% indicated that changes have been made.
  • - 64% anticipated making future changes.
  • - 24% had not made and did not anticipate making changes.

The most commonly identified change implemented to date was associated with better utilization of manure in crop production. Twenty-five of the 61 responses indicated changes in land application and nutrient management practices. More timely removal of manure and odor reduction related efforts were also identified by multiple survey responses.

To implement these changes, producers reported their planned and previous financial expenditures that resulted from the assessment process (Table 4). Only 20% of the participants had invested more than $1000 in changes since the assessment. However, more than half anticipated spending more than $1000 to implement planned changes.

When asked about their motivation to make changes, the top four reasons given by producers were:

  • - Desire to improve farm's environmental stewardship..64%
  • - Desire to minimize use of commercial
    fertilizers in crop program.........................46%
  • - Desire to reduce farm expenses......................41%
  • - Desire to meet regulations..........................41%
Table 4
Financial expenditures to be made by producers to implement changes that resulted, in part, from completion of LSEA.
Financial ExpenditureCompleted ChangesAnticipated Changes
$023 producers21 producers
$1 - $1,00019 producers6 producers
$1,001 - $5,0005 producers13 producers
$5,001 - $10,0003 producers9 producers
More than $10,0002 producers7 producers

Comments and suggestions about the program were solicited. Nearly all comments were positive as represented by the such examples as "Manure management is not fun to think about - but very necessary to prevent and reduce expenses. A must for every producer no matter their size of production." "We are presently looking at other hog facilities and my priorities have changed some due to this meeting." "All cattlemen's groups should be made aware! Don't hide this info - get it out."


Based upon experiences with the use of LSEA with 97 Nebraska livestock producers, the following conclusions were drawn:

LSEA identified significant opportunity for livestock operators to improve their stewardship of air and water resources when used in a self-assessment role. Land application of manure and runoff controls for outdoor lots were the most commonly identified high risk practices and systems.

Close collaboration with local livestock commodity groups proved to be the most effective method for delivering LSEA to local producers. Involvement of commodity groups' leadership in the initial release of this tool within a county provided critical support and validation of the environmental assessment process. Other delivery approaches were met with at least some degree of producer reluctance or skepticism.

LSEA resulted in significant changes of practice. Just under half of the producers had made some changes within 6 to 9 months and 64% intended to make changes as a result, in part, due to their completion of LSEA. Better utilization of manure nutrients in crop production was the most commonly identified change.

LSEA Availability: This extension publication titled "Livestock Systems Environmental Assessment", is available from CIT, Warehouse #2 - East Campus, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE 68583-0927. Telephone: (402) 472-9712.


The authors want to thank the Communications Ad Hoc Review Committee for their hard work, dedication, and foresight in developing the editorial review process. They also thank Ann Senuta and Sydni Gillette for reviewing early drafts of this manuscript.