After all, it is the 21st century and not the 1900s

Even though I was born in the 1900s,  I have to adapt to the demands and expectations of the 21st century. Farming and water stewardship also face new demands and expectations since it is the 21st century and not the 1900s.

The need to support agriculture and protect the quality of local waterways is foundational to farming and water stewardship in the 21st century. Controlling soil loss, erosion, and nutrient runoff — non-point source pollution — from all possible sources is an important focus of water quality protection and clean-up efforts throughout Virginia. And yet, some landowners and people live like it’s the 1900s with little regard for present and future generations.

Fencing installed to exclude livestock and maintain a vegetative buffer beside the stream.

Within the farming and conservation community, soil and water conservation efforts have focused specifically on the implementation of best management practices (BMPs) to reduce soil loss and nutrient runoff (i.e., nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)) to local waterways, and leaching of nutrients to groundwater to control non-point source pollution. There are many different farming and conservation practices, but to actually protect water quality and gain ground in the cleanup of local waterways there are core practices that are foundational to farming and conservation in the 21st century.

Core Best Management Practices (BMPs):

  • Cover soil with crops
  • Exclude livestock from streams
  • Keep riparian and streamside areas forested and vegetated as a buffer
  • Use no-till or conservation tillage
  • Develop and keep an up-to-date nutrient management plan
  • Plan the whole-farm and conserve natural resources
  • Avoid having any denuded lot or confined animal feeding sites
  • Manage loafing lots and sacrifice lots to avoid nutrient accumulation and possible negative impact from concentrated flow of runoff.

No matter the size of the operation, a starting point would be to obtain a recent aerial photo of your farm from the USDA Service Center and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to better understand how your farming operation impacts and interacts with local waterways.  An aerial photo can help you decide and prioritize which BMPs are most critical to implement to reduce nutrient and sediment impacts.

Good forage and pasture management for livestock is another foundational principle.

In some cases, the practices and solutions needed to reduce nutrient and sediment loads can be less obvious, but still have a huge impact. Installing proper guttering around the barn and high traffic areas is a simple practice for good soil and water conservation, but is sometimes overlooked as a practical common sense best management practice.

For some farmers the idea of excluding cattle from streams as a way to control non-point source pollution can be contentious and controversial. Some landowners feel threatened by the idea and feel that the government would be infringing on their property rights since farmers have traditionally relied on ponds and streams to water their cattle. Others think it would be too costly or require too much management.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

For many farmers excluding livestock from streams and providing an alternative off-stream water source for their livestock is the right thing to do to farm and stay competitive in the 21st century. It is also a way for them to market their farm and tell how they are concerned about the environment and what they are doing to protect water quality. The subject of livestock exclusion evokes many emotions and passions within the farming and environmental community.

Farmers who have excluded their livestock from streams and installed alternative off-stream water sources have experienced other benefits from the practice such as:

  • Increased forage utilization,
  • Increased milk production and yield,
  • Increased average daily gains,
  • Reduced environmental mastitis,
  • Eliminates a tremendous risk area for young calves,
  • Fewer cases of foot rot,
  • Fewer leg injuries,
  • Fewer incidence of water borne diseases, and
  • Improved livestock management making it easier to move animals to desired locations such as to the barn/pens.

The quality and cleanliness  of the water source further distinguishes how livestock perform. It is important to remember all water sources have to be clean and properly managed to optimize livestock performance.

Why exclude livestock from streams?

The water quality benefits to the stream include the following:

  • Improved streambank stability
  • Reduced erosion and sediment transport
  • Improved stream habitat
  • Reduced bacteria concentrations
  • Reduced nutrient concentrations.

The feasibility and acceptability of any management practice comes down finally to whether it is efficient, productive, and profitable for the farmer or landowner. Shortening the link from farm-to-table can help support agriculture and inform on-the-ground conservation practices through better communication of demand and what customers are willing to pay to protect the environment.  Farming and water stewardship in the 21st century requires the adoption and use of core best management practices for soil and water conservation, doing the right thing, staying competitive, and considering the needs of the next generation. After all, it is not the 1900s.

For Additional Reading:

Adaptive Streambank Fencing Program

Livestock and Streams: Best Management Practices to Control the Effects of Livestock Grazing Riparian Areas

Streamside Livestock Exclusion: A Tool for Increasing Farm Income and Improving Water Quality


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