Farmers on Fencing

May 19, 2015

For two years, the state of Virginia has been begging cattle farmers to keep animals out of streams on their property - offering to pay the full cost of fencing to prevent pollution of rivers and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. 

Irvin White raises cattle in Central Virginia - calling recently weaned calves to the feeding trough as part of his evening routine.  From the beginning, he’s seen good reason to fence his farms - to keep cows out of the streams where they like to drink and cool off when the weather turns warm.  After all, those streams are loaded with bacteria.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re going to have less pink eye, less foot rot and less mastitis, and then you’re going to end up with healthier calves, because they’re not nursing on cows with dirty udders.”

And he understands why groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation prefer to keep cattle away from rivers and streams.  Bacteria aside, animal waste contains nitrogen, which feeds algae blooms, and foundation scientist Libby Norris says the animals can send sediment from creek beds flowing into the bay.

“Also, when the cattle have access to the stream banks, they can trample or destroy the vegetation along which increases sediment from the erosion which comes off those stream banks.”

The law doesn’t require farmers to fence, and Irvin White, who has a fencing company on the side, understands why some refuse.  They have to set aside a 35-foot buffer along streams, create some other place for their animals to get water and rotate them through several different pastures.

“You know you get into these mountains, and there are just springs everywhere.  A lot of people who want to do this have done it now, but there are still a lot more that need to be done, so there needs to be a way to make this work for that next batch.  There’s going to be some that  hold out to the end, and then they’ll just quit.  If that 200 acres turns into a hundred houses, there’s going to be more runoff from the roads and driveways of those hundred houses than there are from those cows.”

Fencing is expensive - as much as $1,000 an acre for smaller properties, and some farmers say they don’t qualify for government assistance with the bills, but at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Libby Norris urges them to talk with a conservation agent.

“Honestly, there are so many different programs that they could qualify for that we’re almost guaranteed to get them into some of the programs.  If they don’t qualify for one, we search others to make sure it just is a good match.”

Irvin White agrees.  He knows some farmers who - combining aid from the state and federal government - have actually made money installing fences, but future expenses may prove a problem.

“Fences don’t last forever.  Are there going to be maintenance payments on these things?  Some people look at this as if you gave the farmer something.  You know, I’ve now got  three more miles of fence I’ve got to maintain.  Every storm, I’ve got to go walk three more miles of fence to see if there’s a tree down.”

The state has committed to spending $70 million so far, and nearly 2,000 farmers have applied.  On July first, the program will begin scaling back - offering to pay 80% of the cost for fencing to keep farm animals out of rivers and streams.