Setting a deadline for farm conservation practices would be a major step for Virginia water quality

January 29, 2020 12:01 am

Cows crossing a stream on a farm. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

By Matt Kowalski

As a restoration scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, I’m often out in the field with Virginia farmers putting projects on the ground that benefit both stream health and farm operations. I also follow state policy in Richmond that could lead to more conservation practices on farms.

Legislation proposed in the General Assembly would be a big step forward for this work. Lawmakers are considering setting a 2026 deadline for farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to fence cattle out of all permanent streams and develop nutrient management plans to avoid overapplying fertilizer. Agricultural practices like these are some of the most cost-effective ways to restore local and downstream waters.

Though there’s always some resistance to change, this is simply what needs to be done. Virginia set firm commitments a decade ago to reduce pollution to the Chesapeake Bay by 2025 under the Clean Water Blueprint. Yet since then, Virginia has only reached 10 percent of its goal for reducing nitrogen pollution from agricultural sources. While many farmers have already installed conservation practices, the pace of installing these projects needs to accelerate tenfold to meet the goal.

In my experience working with countless farmers over the last seven years, fencing cattle out of streams is one of the best things farmers can do to protect the environment, improve the health of their herds and benefit their bottom line. The 2026 deadline is exactly what is needed for us to all work together to meet this common goal.

Why are livestock in streams in the first place? On many Virginia farms, you might see cattle wading in waterways to drink. But this creates problems. Animals often defecate and urinate directly into the water, causing nutrient pollution, algae, and dangerous bacteria to flourish. If cattle have any small cuts, this dirty water can lead to infections — and a costly round of antibiotics the farmer must pay for.

Now think of what happens when a herd of 1,000-pound cattle tramples stream banks daily, causing a muddy mess. Streams flow murky brown. Erosion and sediment pollution smother stream life, from mayfly larvae to brook trout.

Fencing protects streams from these threats.

Many ask about the money needed to install and maintain fencing. Recent years have been tough on farms. The good news is that the legislation is carefully drafted to ensure that farmers can obtain state funding under Virginia’s agricultural cost-share program as well as no-interest state loans to cover upfront costs. Technical assistance from staff at local Soil and Water Conservation Districts is also key to making sure farmers have the support they need.

In fact, if a farmer has applied for cost-share money and hasn’t received it by the 2026 deadline, they will not be found in violation. Flexibility in the legislation allows solutions to be tailored to individual farms. That includes the use of more affordable temporary fencing, providing access points that allow cattle to drink and allowing the farmer to choose how far from the stream bank to install fencing. With six years to plan and apply, there’s ample time for farmers to get on board.

Farmers who implement conservation practices often discover that a well-planned fencing system, coupled with rotational grazing, can pay dividends. Cattle that drink clean water are healthier — leading to more profits. The most common comment I hear from farmers who install stream fencing in their grazing systems is that they wish they had done it years ago.

Forrest Pritchard, who raises cattle at Smith Meadows farm in Clarke County has experienced the benefits firsthand after protecting his farm’s streams with cost-share funding.

“Successful operators know that soil fertility is like money in the bank. After we fenced off our stream twenty years ago, we saw dramatic improvements in forage yields, moisture retention and animal health,” Pritchard said. “With cost share, the choice was simple: keep that fertilizer working for us in the fields and out of the water.”

I understand the challenges that may concern some farmers considering fencing systems. But the proposed legislation provides time and money to meet these successfully. Once a fencing system is up and running, most farmers wish they had installed it sooner. My hope is that after 2026 we’ll have cleaner streams, healthier livestock, more profitable farms and cattle fenced out of all Virginia waterways.

Let’s make sure our state legislators support this commonsense deadline.

Matt Kowalski is a Virginia watershed restoration scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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