Why don’t farmers just do it?

Cow Stream Postcard

It seems idyllic, but cows in the stream are bad for the watershed, cows, and people. Photo: ShookPhotos via Flickr.

Excluding livestock from streams is possibly the single most effective Best Management Practice in animal agriculture. But too many farmers hesitate to get on board with these practices, even when it’s better for their own animals.

Why don’t farmers just do it?  I mean fence their cattle out of the streams.  If farmers would do this one practice, they could help restore and preserve water in their area watersheds. And in the case of my home area in the Shenandoah River watershed, if farmers did this one practice agriculture would probably be finished with its part of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load , a pollution “diet” designed to ensure Bay cleanup commitments in six states and Washington, D.C.

What’s the problem?

Cows in streams pollute the water with manure, urine and pathogens. They trample stream banks, causing sediment to clog the waterways which destroys the aquatic ecosystem. That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality are pressing farmers to do more.

Many farmers have already done it.

In Augusta County, Virginia, for example, there are at least 365 farms that have installed stream side buffers. We should be very proud of these farmers because they’re the ones that have helped agriculture achieve much of its nutrient reduction goals to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

There’s a lot more to do though and I have heard many say, “I’m not going to do it until someone makes me”.

Gerald Garber, part owner of one of the largest dairies in the Shenandoah Valley said, “We all know what needs to be done, we need to do it.”  He added that his cows are healthier and the stream banks have healed since they fenced their cows out of two and half miles of streams.

How to

Excluding livestock from a stream is not rocket science.  Putting up a fence and making water flow into a trough for a cow is pretty easy – it’s the cheapest sewage treatment plant in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

There are federal, state and private funds to help the farmers get it done. Last time I checked there were eight programs available to help farmers implement the practices needed to make it work for the farmer. Most likely, each state and possibly localities have native programs to help their local farmers, too.

One of the most popular programs in Virginia reimburses the farmer 115% of the cost to do it and pays the farmer rent on the land they fence along the stream! The rental rate in the Valley is between $90 and $100 per acre per year – more than double what the average rental rate is for pasture in most counties.

Don’t fence me in

So if their livestock would be healthier and they get reimbursed for doing it and they get rent on the land they fence, and we know how to do it, why aren’t the rest of the farmers doing it?

Is it because they don’t want change? Is it because they don’t want government intrusion? Is it because they don’t think their cows pollute the stream? Is it because they aren’t going to do it until somebody makes them do it? Is it because it’s their land and they think they can do what they damn well please?

Changing minds

It’s all of the above. And all these issues are social issues not technical or financial issues. It boils down to attitude and ethics.

When these remaining farmers (and all of us for that matter), acquire the ethic that it’s their responsibility as an owner of land and as a steward of the land, to manage their soil and water resources so that it does no harm to others downstream, agriculture at least will have done its part in restoring the streams in their watersheds.

–Robert “Bobby” Whitescarver, Transition Voice

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