Read the current Progressive Forage digital edition

0107 PD: Farm and homestead maps

Thomas M. Bass and Julia W. Gaskin Published on 10 January 2007

A farm or homestead map is a valuable tool for managing and protecting the natural resources on or near your farm property. Understanding where creeks, wetlands, ponds and wells are in relation to livestock pens, barns, manure storage or septic systems is a major first step to protecting water quality on the farm and in the community.

In addition, crop planning or grazing management can be made easier with a view of the available lands for these activities.

In the case of an emergency, it can be valuable to have gas lines, electrical boxes or fuel storage identified on a map. Some cost-share programs require a map before implementing a new practice or building a structure. In the case of nutrient management, planning a farm map is essential.

A good map for nutrient and conservation planning will include many of the following items:

•farm property lines

•land use such as cropland, pasture, forest, etc.

•farm field boundaries with field identification

•surface water locations, including streams, rivers, ponds, ditches and wetlands

•arrows showing the direction of stream or river water flow

•well locations

•buffers around sensitive areas including surface water, wetlands, wellheads, springs, rock outcrops or sinkholes

•any residences or public gathering areas

•spreadable acres

•north arrow

•date prepared

•“prepared with assistance from (name)”

•road names or numbers

•name of county

•legend with map symbols

•BAR SCALE on the map

Making a base map

How do you go about getting this information?

There are several ways including computer-based maps produced by professionals like the NRCS, computer-based maps downloaded from the Internet on a home computer, hand-drawn maps over an aerial photograph or road map or maps drawn completely by hand. An accurate and detailed map is much more useful than one lacking detail or accuracy. Hand-drawn maps will only be able to show basic details at an approximate scale.

NRCS Toolkit

The easiest way to acquire the map information needed for a nutrient management plan is to use the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Toolkit. Many USDA Service Center offices are equipped with computers and technology that can generate a map for you. A conservationist can come to your farm and bring an electronic aerial photo of the farm with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) property lines and field lines. You can work with the conservationist to add streams as well as other water bodies, and locate buffers.

Online maps

There are several sources for maps online. These maps can serve as your base from which to build a more detailed depiction of the farm and its surroundings. The aerial photographs available at some of these sites can also be used to make the base map for your NMP. After you have obtained the topographic map or aerial photograph of your farm, you can hand draw the property boundaries, streams, fields, etc. or use computer software to add the needed features. You will have to determine the scale of the photograph by measuring a known distance on the map.

Photocopied maps

Maps can also be constructed from photocopies. Sources of a base map may include a detailed county road map, old FSA maps, USGS topographic maps or county soil survey maps. To complete a map, the following items may be useful:

•several copies of the base map for the farm

•a copy of the county soil survey map from NRCS

•colored pencils or fine point markers

•a ruler Important features and land uses must be added by hand using pencils or markers.

Suitable areas

Site suitability for manure application is largely determined by the soils and topography, although other issues may include how close a field is to public roads, public gathering areas or residences. The best sites for manure application are on level to gently sloping, deep, well-drained soils with some clay content. Areas that require extra care include:

•soils less than 24 inches to bedrock

•soils with water tables less than 36 inches below the soil surface

•slopes greater than 12 to 15 percent

Detailed information on soil maps and characteristics are available from NRCS.

Setbacks and buffers around sensitive areas

Sensitive areas are things such as wellheads, streams or wetlands sensitive to nutrient inputs. Setbacks are areas in which manures and nutrients are not applied. Buffers are setbacks managed with certain types of vegetation to help prevent nutrients and sediments from reaching surface waters.

Setbacks around wellheads will reduce the potential for groundwater contamination from nutrients in manures, fertilizers or pesticides.

Setbacks and buffers around streams, rivers, ponds and wetlands reduce the chance these surface waters will become overloaded with nutrients. Most freshwater bodies are particularly sensitive to phosphorus. Phosphorus in runoff or in water moving through the soil into the surface water can cause excessive algae growth that creates problems for recreation and other uses.

Effective buffers are highly site-specific and depend on land use, slope and vegetation. You should review any proposed buffers with NRCS or county extension personnel. Governmental rules and regulations may require specific setback and buffer widths. These take precedence over any recommended widths.

A rule of thumb for buffers, that has origins in regulation, is they should be 100 feet wide for bare or sparsely vegetated land or 35 feet wide if well-vegetated.

Considering spreadable acreage

Setbacks and buffers needed around these sensitive areas may reduce the land available for application of manures and fertilizers. The land area within a field available for manure application should be marked on the map. The acreage of the buffers and setbacks must be subtracted from the total acreage of the field.

The use of manures in areas close to houses or public gathering places, if there is a potential for odor complaints, should be limited or appropriately scheduled. These areas should also be marked on the map and subtracted from the useable land acres, if necessary.

If a map is drawn to proper scale, these acreage calculations can be made using the map. For hand-drawn or photocopied maps without a reliable scale, the measurements should be made in the field and penciled in on the map.


These maps are critical for conservation, planning land application of manures and crop rotations. You should keep them as accurate as possible.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request.

—Excerpt from “Small Farm Nutrient Management Primer”

Tommy Bass

Agricultural Pollution Prevention Specialist

Q. If a producer were serious about creating a detailed farm map, how much time would you estimate it would take to compile information for a 500-acre farm?

NRCS can knock out a very comprehensive map in under an hour or so, depending on the quality of information provided by the producer. Showing up with good information at the NRCS office will expedite this process. The coordinates of center pivots, wells, fences or items that are not shown on the aerial or satellite views will help speed up the process.

Hand-drawn or partially hand-drawn maps may take longer depending on the amount of detail needed. I have made some rudimentary maps using a Google Maps image and MS Draw or Photoshop in 30 minutes to an hour.

To contact Tommy, e-mail him at

See more articles like this at