Cattle Destroy Streams

The downstream and upstream pictures in this post were published by the Bay Journal in William Funk’s article “Virginia Faulted for Handling of Cattle Pollution in Shenandoah“.

Cattle Destroy Streams and the Aquatic Ecosystem.

Livestock that have access to streams and rivers pollute the water with their manure and urine.  But perhaps even worse, when they access a stream and “hang out” to cool off, their cloven hooves gouge and dislodge soil from the banks of the stream causing the death of the aquatic ecosystem.

On average, a mature cow weights half a ton.  Think about a herd of fifty, half-ton cows with hooves like big ice cream scoops climbing up and down a stream bank.  The soil ripped out by their hooves gets in the stream and suffocates the critters that live in it.  If there are cows in the stream, the water is going to be brown – like chocolate milk, because of all the dislodged soil suspended in the water.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words.

Two pictures are worth two thousand words.  I stood on the bank of Middle River looking downstream at a farm that allows cattle into the river and took this picture.  All the stream banks are denuded.

Cattle destroy streams

Cattle destroy streams and stream banks. Notice the exposed soil on every bank. © R. Whitescarver

I turned around, on the same spot and took the next picture looking upstream.  The farmer of this land removed cattle from the river in 2002. Notice the banks.  There is little if any exposed soil.  Look again. Downstream, upstream.  A stark and profound difference isn’t it?

Remove cattle from streams and the banks will heal.

On this farm the stream banks are stabilized. Cattle were excluded from the river on this farm in 2002. © R. Whitescarver

Sediment Suffocates the Aquatic Ecosystem

Dislodged soil that enters a stream or river smothers and suffocates the aquatic ecosystem.  For example, the larval stages of mayflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies have external gills.  Sediment in the water clogs those gills causing their suffocation and death.

This Mayfly nymph lives in clean streams and has external gills. Notice the feathery structures on each side of the insect’s abdomen.  These are external gills.  Suspended soil particles in the water clog these gills.

Fencing livestock, especially cattle out of streams and rivers is vital for a functioning aquatic ecosystem, cleaner streams and a restored Chesapeake Bay.  There are many advantages for farmers as well such as healthier livestock, ease of herd movement and the elimination of calving risk areas.

There are many programs that can help do this with technical assistance and funding.  Contact me or any of the organizations listed below to find out more.

Your local Soil and Water Conservation District.

Your local USDA office.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Stroud Water Research Center.

The Chesapeake Bay Program of EPA.

© Robert Whitescarver 2017


  1. Rich Shockey says:


    Thanks for the great pictures. I like to share information like this to my friends and coworkers.

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Thanks Rich. These pictures were taken on Middle River in Augusta County, VA. Feel free to use them.

  2. Thank you, Bobby, for this insightful message about environmental management.

    Responsible stewardship requires deliberation and a willingness to think beyond our boxes.

    What it does not always require technical jargon, fancy equipment and complex decision making.

    Thank you, Bobby, for your exemplary conservation leadership!

  3. Joan Gottlieb says:

    Bobby, Definitely a good example that a picture is worth a thousand words!

  4. Jim McAuley says:

    Thanks for showing the huge difference in bank erosion caused by cattle in streams and rivers.

  5. Michael Godfrey says:


    Last evening I noticed an exciting new cattle exclusion project on the extreme upper Middle River ; don’t know if it’s CREP or some other effort, but likely an extension of your work and influence. I don’t l know the farm but it’s across from Brandenberg. Plenty of water for the cattle to drink but they can’t stand in it now and get foot rot, poop it up, tear up the banks. Some future generation will be amazed to learn we once permitted the public water supply to be abused like that — and for no good reason. Not good for the cattle or the rest of the world downstream.

    You’re a warrior, Bobby.

    My thanks,


    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Hey Michael, the project you describe is Jimmy Callison’s. He enrolled in the state’s SL-6 program to fence the cattle out and provide three cattle crossings. He also enrolled in the state’s FR-3 program that funded the small trees in the shelters. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay Program funded the purchase and planting of 60, 1.5 inch diameter trees. Yes, I was invloved. He is now in communication with the Headwaters SWCD to do the same on the next farm downstream. Once that one is done, the FOMR think we can put some trout in Upper, upper Middle.

      It is indeed ironic that Augusta County allows farmers to have livestock in the very river that they use to supply their citizens with drinking water. In my opinion, these landowners should not be receiving the benefit of land-use tax.

      Thanks for your comment and for your committment to conservation.

  6. Ann Jurczyk says:

    Thanks Bobby. We see it downstream too — the James is more caramel colored than chocolate milk — thick with sediment from upstream red clay soils. I wonder how much acreage farmers lose to erosion each year?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Ann, good question. NRCS used to keep estimates of the average annual soil loss on cropland and pasture. I don’t know if they still do. I don’t think I have ever seen estimates of stream bank erosion but it definitely occurs and can be measured with simple volume calculations.

  7. shared out to my groups

    see the new post to my blog today.

  8. Greetings from Bozeman; you might not remember me, but we overlapped when I was at JMU. I’m now working on a soils literacy project with some Montana farmers and ranchers.

    Can you provide the coordinates for your photo(s)? (Perhaps private email?) I’d like to see what aerial imagery exists to run the “timeslider” in Google Earth, for example.

    Because I’m always interested in teaching/learning what the return-on-investment is for specific land rehabilitation practices. For example, did it take 1, 2, 5, 10, or 15 years for the banks to recover? Are the soils up- and downstream the same soil map unit, with similar “erosion tolerance” levels? Where are the nearest USGS turbidity monitoring stations, and are those turbidities reflective of fraction of upstream reaches that exclude cows?

    I guess 2 pictures are worth a thousand questions!

    Thanks for your important work!

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      Tony, I remember you! We were supposed to introduce “Dirt the Movie” at JMU. Coordinate is 38 09 11.24 N, 79 11 55.35 W. I added the photos to googleEarth.

      Same soils up and down the river, Fluvaquents, Bookwood, etc. We sample the river for E. coli there and upstream when the river enters this property.

      The river started the healing process as soon as the owner fenced the cows out. He enrolled in CREP and has 100 foot buffers on both sides of the river.

  9. The two pictures say it all! Water should go to the cattle, but not cows in the water. These
    pictures shoud be posted wherever farmers go, so they can see the difference. Keeping the soil on the farm is in their best interest.

  10. Anne Nielsen says:

    All of the information from the Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts mention sediment from streams as a major contributor to slow progress. No doubt these practices occur all the way from here to the Chesapeake, but I rarely see something as starkly contrasting as your photos. Thanks.
    You are indeed a warrior for the environment! Anne

  11. Jim Sloan says:

    I wish I could get something like this accomplished on our farm on the Bullpasture River. It feeds the Cowpasture and on to the James. Jim

  12. Jim Sloan says:

    For one, I would like to fully educate myself on possible options and to know more of what others have successfully accomplished. Your excellent pictures show what I have observed all my life and always asked my family — why do we do this to the river? To the springs and seeps that feed the river? The river flow is not what it was only a few years ago. Sad to see. J

Speak Your Mind