The Chesapeake Bay watershed includes 3.5 million livestock, among them beef and dairy cows, swine, horses, goats and sheep. More than half of those are cattle, which too often can be found standing in streams.
Cattle and streams are not a good combination. The cattle erode the stream banks, contributing to sediment loads. They defecate in the water, adding unwanted nitrogen and phosphorus and high bacteria counts. In return, the streams can harm the cattle. Cattle become susceptible to warts, foot rot, lameness and various pathogens that rodents carry. They can also drown, costing farmers thousands of dollars and much heartache.
Farmers who have fenced animals out of streams and switched to an on-farm water source say it has improved the quality of their meat and milk, allowed them better flood control and brought back healthy fish populations in the streams.
Still, officials in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia say not enough farmers are fencing the animals out of streams — in large part because of the cost and the difficulty in getting technical assistance for the job, which can be hard on large farms with many miles of stream banks.
A new report from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, Healthy Livestock, Healthy Streams, recommends several policy changes to encourage farmers to fence out their livestock. The commission is a tri-state body that advises legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia on the best policies for the Chesapeake. Previous reports have focused on manure-to-energy, biofuels and the best bang-for-the-buck pollution reduction practices.
The livestock stream checklist includes increasing resources for incentive programs, making technical assistance available, exploring livestock stream exclusion tax breaks or loans, ensuring that legislation in each state encourages the practice, reducing bureaucracy and working with farmers who rent land to exclude livestock even when the owner is not interested.
Cattle in streams are commonplace even after major efforts to educate farmers that the practice is not beneficial to either water or livestock, said Jack Frye, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. That’s especially true in the Shenandoah Valley, where the cattle laze in the streams close to roadways, and paddlers report having to maneuver around them.
The question of whether more farmers would exclude cattle if they had the funding has been answered loudly and clearly in Virginia, said Russ Baxter, deputy secretary of the Virginia Department of Natural Resources.
In 2012, Virginia announced it would fund any farmer who wanted to exclude livestock from streams at 100 percent. In 2012, the state spent just short of $4 million on the practice. With the 100 percent promise, it shot up to $10 million in 2013 and about $8 million in 2014. Already in 2015, Virginian farmers will require $16 million to put in the practice. The state doesn’t currently have that money, but officials say they’re committed to getting it. The 100 percent guarantee ends in June 2015.
“Most of our signups have been outside the Bay watershed, so there are a lot of reasons for it besides the Bay cleanup,” Baxter said. “There’s no TMDL in the Roanoke River basin. Those farmers are signing up because they see benefits.”
According to an analysis from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, livestock stream exclusion costs the average farmer $38,000. But Frye said it can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars for large farms. Even with state funding, it’s not free; farmers have to maintain fences and watering troughs over the 10 years that the cost-share funding requires. As a practice, it really delivers. The report found that excluding cattle from streams reduced erosion by 77 percent and phosphorus by 81 percent. Some commission members remarked that it was analogous to wastewater treatment upgrades in its effectiveness.
Each of the three states represented on the Chesapeake Bay Commission has a different regulatory structure and a different take on the exclusions.
Frye, who regulated farm-conservation programs for nearly 30 years in Virginia and is retiring from the commission, said he could envision a time when all three states require fencing livestock out of streams. That’s not only because of habitat and aquatic life, he said, but because it could become a public health issue if the cattle contaminate drinking water.
A couple of hours after Frye presented the report, commission members attended a legislative reception at the Capitol Hill Visitors Center. A panel of state and federal regulators told their Congressional counterparts what they needed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay more quickly.
Sen. Tim Kaine made himself available to the panel for questions. Kaine said he was struggling to end the across-the-board budget cuts in Congress, known as sequestration, and was trying to get the necessary funds to his constituents.
From the panel, Molly Ward, Virginia’s secretary of Natural Resources, jumped at the invitation to brief Kaine quickly on Frye’s report. “We need to get livestock out of streams. We need the money to do it,” Ward said. “That is the bottom line.”
To read the report, Healthy Livestock, Healthy Streams, visit, www.chesbay.us, and click on “Recent” under “Publications.”