Manure Management on Small Farms

What Does “Small Farm” Mean?

Small farms are typically smaller in size, with fewer animal numbers, less acreage and have a lighter regulatory burden than larger farms, which may often be designated as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO’s. Small farms are often able to implement lower cost solutions to animal waste concerns than are larger farms.

The USDA and EPA give broad definitions of what constitutes a small farm. A small farm could have 150 dairy cows in the midwestern or western dairy belt or it could be a 30–head flock of sheep raised for an organic market. It could be a 100 head sow herd or 10 head of beef cows and their calves on a retirement farm. Small farms may include both commercial and hobby farms.

Small farms are often quite diverse (University of Rhode Island Small Acreage Livestock Program). A horse-boarding farm in the northeast that exports all manure off-site is very different from a 150-head dairy farm that spreads all manure on owned acreage. Both could be called small farms but the management challenges would be very different for each. A majority of residential/lifestyle farms may also experience high stocking rates (or animal units per acre). Farms with limited land resources must rely on exporting manure to manage the animal waste.

What is an Animal Feeding Operation (AFO)?

Animal feeding operations (AFOs) are agricultural enterprises where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and your state regulatory agency, an AFO is a lot or facility where animals have been, are, or will be stabled or confined and fed, or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures or fields or on rangeland. Animals are not considered to be stabled or confined when they are in areas such as pastures or rangeland that sustain crops or forage growth during the entire time that animals are present.

Small Farm Livestock Collage

Small farms must first determine if they meet the definition of an AFO. If not, they are considered a “pasture based operation.” If the operation meets the definition of an AFO, then they must determine if they meet the definition of a CAFO (small or medium). This determination is a function of size and connection to surface water resources. There are times when a pasture based operation may be subject to regulation. Any Animal Feeding Operation (AFO) that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterway can also be defined as a CAFO, regardless of size. See What if My Operation is an AFO but not a CAFO?.

USDA Definition of Small Farm

The United States Department of Agriculture defines a small farm as having less than $250,000 in annual gross sales (USDA Small Farm Definitions). According to the National Commission on Small Farms these farms constitute 90 percent of U.S. farms, contain 67 percent of farm land, and hold 77 percent of farm sector net worth. In 2004, small farms accounted for 26 percent of all agricultural receipts from crops and livestock. The Small Business Administration (SBA) generally classifies farms as small if they have sales less than $500,000. By SBA standards, about 97 percent of U.S. family farms are small (USDA-Economic Research Service).

All farms with livestock, regardless of size, can be environmental risks. It doesn’t matter if there is one animal or many, if animal housing, pastures and manure is not properly managed, there is a potential to harm the environment or cause problems for neighbors.


Environmental Stewardship for Small Farms

All small farms should strive to achieve good land and animal stewardship: Small-Scale Farmers and the Environment: How to be a Good Steward ( Spanish Language Version). Well managed farms will:

  1. Minimize barnyard and manure runoff into streams or wetlands
  2. Properly account for manure spread on crop or pastureland
  3. Properly store manure to utilize this resource during the growing season
  4. Manage animals and manure on pastures to maintain pasture quality, control field erosion, and control animal traffic near streams
  5. Keep records about their operation.

Small farm manure management poses different kinds of challenges than does manure management on larger farms. This section will connect you with some of the best resources about managing manure on small farms. Follow the links below for helpful information:

Authors: Michael Westendorf, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and Mark Rice, North Carolina State University; Updated November 25, 2008