Virginia farmers get money to help clean up the bay

By: - January 11, 2019 4:07 am

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A Virginia region that is an unlikely but critical partner in the commonwealth’s efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay has been selected as one of the recipients of more than $1.7 million in federal and matching funds: the Shenandoah Valley.

Last month, the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced that it would channel $850,350 in grant funds, with a promised match of an equal amount from partnering organizations, to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to promote rotational grazing in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Within the commonwealth, the seven northwestern counties of Augusta, Clarke, Frederick, Page, Rockbridge, Rockingham and Shenandoah are eligible for funding.

“We love [rotational grazing] from a conservation standpoint because it’s so good for water quality, but I think it’s going to be an easy sell because it just makes sense,” said CBF watershed restoration scientist Matt Kowalski.

Overall, the CBF hopes that the grant will result in the conversion of 30 farms to rotational grazing, resulting in reductions of 82,000 pounds of nitrogen, 7,000 pounds of phosphorus and 656 tons of sediment pollution annually.

About one-third of those conversions are expected to be made in Virginia, although CBF has not set concrete targets for each individual state.

The $850,000 grant is part of a much larger package of $13.1 million in grants made as part of the Chesapeake Bay Stewardship Fund’s annual slate of awards. Managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the fund is largely supported by money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Chesapeake Bay Program.

A livestock management practice more common in the decades prior to the intensive mechanization of agriculture than in recent years, rotational grazing, sometimes known as prescribed grazing, sections off farmers’ lands into parcels called paddocks and then moves livestock between them for designated periods of time.

The technique is intended to give sections of forage land time to regenerate, leading to both more fertile land and less harmful runoff.

A 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service found that “resting grazed paddocks allows forage plants to renew energy reserves, rebuild vigor, deepen their root system and give long-term maximum production.”

Livestock producers generally face three choices in managing their land and animals: They can use the majority of their land for row crops that they then feed to stock largely confined to the barnyard and its environs, they can allow their stock to graze over the majority of their land, or they can adopt rotational grazing.

Since 2010, the Chesapeake Bay Program has identified rotational grazing as a best management practice, a specific strategy or action that research has confirmed reduces levels of nitrogen, phosphorus or sediment in the bay. Those pollutants can create algal blooms that deprive bay waters of oxygen as well as murky water that makes it difficult for the underwater grasses that nurture marine life to grow.

According to a statement by CBF Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee, rotational grazing “has been demonstrated to reduce polluted runoff, reduce a farm’s feed and labor costs and significantly benefit soil health.”

Pollution reductions are accomplished in several ways. First, by giving root systems time to deepen, plants are able to retain more water and help prevent soil erosion. Less erosion means lower sediment loads and decreases in the transfer of excess nutrients along with soil into bodies of water.

“The idea conservation-wise is good rotational grazing leads to good soil health,” said Kowalski. “We tend to see better water quality coming off of the pastures.”

Second, grazed lands use less fertilizer than cropped land, meaning that less nitrogen and phosphorus are directly applied to fields.

The seven counties that will be eligible to receive grant funds were chosen because of their high level of livestock production, as well as their ready access to the two CBF staff members based in the region.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, in 2016, Rockingham County had more farms and cropland than any other county in Virginia, while also being the leading producer of cattle and calves and milk cows. Augusta was the leading county for beef cow production.

“There’s a lot of property in the Shenandoah Valley that is rocky and hard to grow row crops in, but it makes perfectly fine pasture,” said Kowalski.

He estimated that about 20 to 30 percent of farmers producing livestock in the region are currently using rotational grazing.

The practice may have declined over time because of “the ease in management that came with large diesel tractors and especially the ability to bale hay,” he hypothesized. With that crop increasingly easy to produce and stockpile, farmers may have felt that planting row crops to feed the herd offered greater security than grazing.

Farmers may also be deterred from adopting the grazing practice because of the cost of fencing off paddocks and ensuring that each parcel has a water supply, particularly if they lease the land that they use—a practice that Kowalski said is common in the Shenandoah Valley.

Grant funds will be available to offset some of these costs. According to Kowalski, about half of the initiative’s overall $1.7 million budget is expected to go toward such on-the-ground improvements, with the other half going toward operating funds. Cheaper alternative technologies, such as solar-powered watering pumps, may also be options available to farmers.

“We’re all trying to help farmers get more productivity out of their land while at the same time being more sustainable,” he said.

Other partners in the Virginia effort will include the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Virginia Department of Forestry and the National Resource Conservation Service.

Gov. Ralph Northam has also proposed dedicating $90 million per year by the 2020 fiscal year to the agricultural best management practices cost share program, which helps farmers implement practices that help reduce the environmental effects of agriculture.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.