Support excluding cattle from streams

February 11, 2020 12:01 am

(Bobby Whitescarver)

By Bobby Whitescarver

Farmers with 20 cows or more would have to exclude cattle from perennial streams.

That’s the purpose of two bills moving through the General Assembly  — SB704 and HB1422

I am a cattle farmer in Augusta County and I support these bills. 

I gaze down at the river flowing through our farm. Today the water is clear. But in warmer times it flows like chocolate milk—thick with brown sediment. The sediment clogs the gills of all the critters. They die. Our river is polluted.

In warmer times, anytime the air temperature is above 50 degrees, most of the cattle upstream spend a lot of time in the river cooling off. When they move around the cloven hooves on their half-ton bodies dislodge the soil along the banks of the river and cause the soil to fall into the river. While they are cooling off in the water, they defecate into the water. Their manure and urine pollute the water, accelerating the destruction of the aquatic ecosystem.

Not only is the water full of sediment, it’s laden with nutrients and pathogens. 

We voluntarily fenced our cows out of the river 16 years ago. We used federal and state cost-dollars to help fund the installation of fences, livestock watering systems and livestock crossings. 

I was a district conservationist for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and worked for more than 30 years helping farmers fence their cattle out of streams, rivers and wetlands. Many have done their part and I am grateful for their commitment to clean water.

But many farmers have not done their part. They have their reasons. They don’t want somebody telling them what to do, they fear government intrusion, they don’t want change, they don’t think their cows do damage to the stream. Some say it will put them out of business.

I’ve never known a farm to go out of business because they had too much conservation, I have known farms to go out of business because they didn’t have enough conservation. Poor soil health, poor herd health , and exceeding the carrying capacity of the land — that’s what makes a farmer go out of business — not more conservation.

Many times, I have heard, “I’ll fence my cows out of the stream when they make everybody do it.” Well, that time may be coming soon. 

The taxpayers of this commonwealth and this nation fund voluntary projects, like ours, to clean up our streams. They do so willingly because they know that good land-use benefits everyone. Furthermore, it’s a lot more economical to pay a farmer for a fence and a livestock watering system than to pay for a wastewater treatment plant and a new school if the farmer went out of business and sold the land for a housing development.

Cattle exclusion from streams is perhaps the single most cost-effective measure to clean up our streams and the Chesapeake Bay. 

It costs about $50 to remove one pound of nitrogen pollution by upgrading a wastewater treatment plant in the city. It costs about $3 to remove one pound of nitrogen pollution using livestock exclusion and a buffer of trees along a stream on a farm, according to a Chesapeake Bay Foundation study.

Farmers have a lot of work to do in the next few years. According to Virginia’s plan to remove the Bay from the dirty waters list, farmers must install over 17,000 miles of livestock exclusion by 2025. If we want to have cleaner streams, and a restored Bay we need to help our farmers get there.

Robert “Bobby” Whitescarver of Swoope is a watershed restoration consultant and cattle farmer. He can be reached through his website at

Clarification: This piece has been updated to reflect the current versions of the stream-exclusion legislation. Both bills originally contained deadlines that have been removed.

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