The riparian buffers on our farm on Middle River are now fifteen years old. Fifteen years ago, the “River Farm” was basically a cool-season grass pasture with a few scattered mature trees along the banks of the river. Now, in addition to excellent forage for cattle, there are hundreds of native trees and shrubs and thousands of native plants creating diverse wildlife habitats on the land that provides food for a thriving aquatic ecosystem.
It Was One Big Pasture
Fifteen years ago, this forty acre farm was one. big. pasture. The Middle River meanders through it for one-half mile and there are two unnamed, intermittent streams that seep out of the ground and flow to the river. There were no internal fences for the pasture and the cows had access to all the water features including the river.
Getting the cows from this big pasture to the barn was a chore fraught with frustration. If the cows didn’t want to move they could cross the river, multiple times at any number of their favorite crossings leaving us on the other side cursing wildly and bewildered because there was no way for us to cross the ten feet wide river unless we went back out to the road – outsmarted by bovines.
The Government Helped Us
In 2004, we enrolled in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program. (This gets technical and bureaucratic, so skip these Ps if you don’t need the info). We have two, fifteen-year contracts. One called CP-29 and the other CP-22.
The CP-29 contract for 2.0 acres, had a minimum, average setback from hydric features at 20 feet; ideal for a cattleman that desired more pasture and less buffer. At that time USDA did not require us to plant anything within this narrow buffer as long we could find four native species in the area we were fencing off.
The CP-22 contract for 3.9 acres, required a minimum setback of 35 feet and 110 hardwood trees per acre. This is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).
We have 5.9 acres of riparian buffer, a half mile on Middle River and 0.12 miles for each of the two intermittent streams. It was a big project creating two alternative livestock watering stations, three stream crossings, 1.5 miles of fence, and a hardwood tree planting. We used the hydric features and fences to create five smaller grazing fields for rotational grazing.
Riparian Buffers Fifteen Years Later
Now, fifteen years later, we can get the cows to the barn with ease, the cows drink cleaner water, and we can rest in the shade of the riparian trees.
This farm produces not only grass for beef but wildlife, and cleaner water as well.
My wife, Jeanne, is a ninth-generation farmer. She knows cattle. I’m an environmentalist, I know soil and water. Together we made this farm into a showcase of how compromise and working together can achieve much more than our individual pursuits. We can indeed farm and improve the environment.
Riparian Buffer Contracts Expire
Our two USDA contracts will expire on September 30, 2018. We will not renew the contracts because the CP-29 program doesn’t exist anymore and Virginia offers a program that pays $1/foot of stream exclusion. It’s called the “Continuing Conservation Initiative” and can be found in the Virginia Agricultural BMP Cost-Share Manual.
We have learned so much in this short fifteen year period. In the CREP area, tree canopy closure was achieved in just seven years. That’s because we applied management.
Lessons Learned – Cows
- Rotational grazing is good for the cows and the pastures. It’s much easier to call cows and lead them than it is to push them to the desired location. In rotational grazing, the grass is greener on the other side so they naturally want to move.
- An exclusion fence is a significant insurance against calf mortality. Swamps, steep ravines, and streams are dangerous places for cows to have a newborn calf. Calves that cannot get up because the wet muck sucked their legs in or because it’s too steep to stand up will perish before they can nurse.
- Water is the often the limiting factor in creating a rotational grazing system.
Lessons Learned – Trees
- You can’t just plant trees and walk away. Plant the right tree in the right place and maintain the tree shelter.
- Keep tall fescue and voles away from the tree.
- I wish we had planted more trees and shrubs in the CP-29 area. In the CREP area where we planted native hardwoods according to the Virginia Department of Forestry hardwood tree planting guide at the time, the trees are twenty feet tall and many have a diameter greater than six inches at breast height. The forest floor in the CREP is totally shaded.
- In the CP-29 CRP area, we did not plant trees like we did in the CREP area. We planted trees and shrubs here and there just about every year with some success. The native pioneer trees, however; did much better.
- Native trees will come if you let them. Walnut, Green Ash, Sycamore, and Catalpa are the most prolific in our area.
- If you plant a tree, you must help it along. Voles and fescue will try to kill it. Tree shelters work. But, you must maintain the stake and they should be removed when the tree can support itself and, you must put some sort of deer deterrent on it to prevent deer rubs.
- In 2004 we used the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Hardwood Tree Planting Guide. We followed it and it worked.
Lessons Learned – Wildlife Habitat
- Plant habitat and they will come. Our riparian buffers are so vibrant with wildlife. Willow Flycatchers, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Warbling Vireos, Monarch butterflies, and so much more come to nest in our riparian buffers.
- Wildflowers and native grasses include Jewelweed, boneset, grand lobelia, solidago, wingstem, ironweed, Mexican hat, Maximillion sunflower, common milkweed, butterfly weed, bur marigold, switchgrass, Indiangrass, and big bluestem.
Lessons Learned – Water Quality
- Removing cattle from the streams and river improved water quality. Most of the stream banks healed on their own and E. coli is reduced on average by 55%. We know this because we sampled the river when it enters the farm and a half mile downstream when it leaves the farm. We sampled the river every month for two years for the Friends of the Middle River. Sample results for all sites can be found on their website.
Lessons Learned – Invasive Plants
- There will always be invasive plants. They are ephemeral in population, first, it was thistle, then teasel, now carpetweed and bur cucumber.
Lessons Learned – Program Assistance
- There is not enough emphasis on management in newly planted buffers.
- A buffer full of invasive weeds and empty tree shelters is a huge detriment to the programs.
- Well managed buffers and healthy trees are excellent marketing tools.
- Local non-profits and volunteers have had great success in managing newly planted buffers and old ones as well.
Conclusion – Riparian Buffers Work for the Farmer and Our Streams
Riparian buffers, especially riparian forest buffers are the single most cost-effective Best Management Practice to improve freshwater streams. This coupled with increased livestock watering stations and internal fencing can greatly improve grazing distribution, ease of herd movement, improve herd health, and reduce calf mortality. Riparian buffers are a win-win for the farmer and our streams.
To learn more or to get help to install this practice on your farm contact me, your local Soil and Water Conservation District, local USDA Service Center or the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. There are many programs and technical assistance to help install more riparian forest buffers.
More resources can be found at:
Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay
Congratulations! By coincidence, I first saw your farm in 2004, when I was scouting for research sites. The change has been breathtaking. And several of your neighbors’ properties have been transformed as well, presumably thanks to your encouragement. As both a birder and a beef-eater, I can attest to the fact that your farm produces abundant birds and the best beef. Every time I throw one of your steaks on the grill I make sure to pause for a moment to take in the fact that one really can have it all.
Dr. Dan! What a nice note. Thanks for your comments and for your research! Much appreciated.
Great article and Great Pictures!
I will share this with the folks in PA.
Thanks as always, Rich.
Thank you Bobby & Jeanne for your amazing stewardship.
Thanks, Megan, for your kind words and for sharing this.
Bobby and Jeanne – All I can say is WOW!
Thanks, Roger. You were an enabler for me.
Job well done, and your tenacity to see it pay off and its continued growth is applauded.
Hi Bobby, thanks for sharing! Your photos alone tell a great story but I really appreciate the breakdown of lessons learned as there are some really useful take-home messages there. Thanks to you and Jeanne for your stewardship and for documenting this process!
Thanks, Amy! Let’s go birding.
There’s interesting info embedded in your E. coli graph. Could you identify the months? There are big spikes first 4 months and a lesser spike last 4. Would those 4-month periods be summer when the cattle
lounge in the river to cool and eliminate? Does MR3B on the graph = MR4 in your narrative?
It would be great to see an interpretation of that data.
Michael, thanks for your comment and questions. Yes! During the warm and hot months, the cows are pooping and wallowing in the river. In the cold months, when the cows aren’t in the river the E. coli counts are sometimes below the state’s threshold of 235cfus/100ml.
WOW! An incredible transformation. You two are awesome stewards of the environment! Congratulations on living the good life.
Thanks Bobby for continuing your positive, straight-story updates.
Consider- good stewardship pays, always respecting the evidence and clues from Mother Nature!
Suggestions: Continue push for “straight & readable” guidance and usage documents/postings from *all Regulatory and “expert/ academic” sources. Significant Envirn./ Energy regulations should always lead off with a current (non-legal) “Operational” Summary (vs. an Executive Summary), so that users of regs. don’t have to be wonks to know key specifics. Or, another ex.- ever read those Va. Energy Co. notices?
Also, continue to remind riparian owners that Va. Agencies- esp. DCR- have for at least *36 years been telling folks the many benefits of riparian buffers- esp. with good mix of native trees- plus related steps to keep streambanks resilient. Remember those “Tributary Strategies” plans &etc. with DCR & SWCB?
best regards, John Reeves Rockingham Co.
Thank you, John. Spot on.
I’m echoing everything Amy just said! The pictures add so much life to your story, and the lessons learned are great take-aways. Thanks, Bobby!
Thank you, Sally. That means so much coming from the editor of Virginia’s premier wildlife magazine. You rock!
This is an inspiring story. It shows how doing right by the environment can also benefit farmers, as well as being aesthetically pleasing,
Such an impressive transformation ! Thank you for all your efforts. You should be an inspiration to farmers everywhere.
Nancy, thanks for reaching out to me and for your kind words.
A wonderful and well illustrated and documented story of what good land use practices and environmental protection can do for our natural resources while insuring benefits for all of us. I commend you and Jeanne for all that you do, especially making it known as an example to follow. Do keep it up.
Now that we’re once again residents of Virginia, I hope to visit soon to see your work firsthand.
George, thank you so much for stopping in and for your kind comments. Where do you live now in Virginia? Please come by and rest in the shade of our riparian trees. You taught me well.
Terrific post Bobby!!! Thanks and hope you and Jeanne are well. You are wonderful role models.
Beth, you rock! Thank you for posting. We need to talk soon.
Pictures are worth much more than a thousand words. What an amazing transformation. Practicality and beauty.
Jeff, you have been a part of this from the get-go. You have seen the transformation in the farm and in us from day one. Thanks for posting.
SL-6 is a fantastic subsidy for the Valley cattle farmers– free water, free fencing.
The SL-6 program (cattle exclusion) will not materially change the nutrient export from the Valley or change the number of exceedances of high E. coli in the NF, SF, or main stem Shenandoah River. There are 1,390,121 animal units AU of poultry in the Valley and 157,254 AU of cattle. If all the direct deposition of cattle waste (988,730 lbs. of nitrogen) was excluded from all the Valley streams the maximum reduction in nitrogen from the Valley would be 0.16 mg/l. In the past 4 years LFSWCD has excluded 8891 pounds of N using SL-6 for a price of 9,000,000 dollars, that’s right 9 million dollars = $1000/ LB. Project that to excluding all the direct deposition and the cost is $900,000,000.
E. coli exceedances in the Rivers occur during periods of overland runoff. The E. coli per square mile increase 100 to 1000 times at high flow over summertime base flows. The ratio of cattle to poultry suggests that much of the E. coli are of poultry origin.
If we want to do anything about nutrient export from the Valley or E. coli problems in the Rivers we need to reduce nutrient application on the land and keep the soil on the land.
Oh, dear, Mr. Webb. Thank you for coming to our buffer birthday party, you are always welcome. But those gifts you left, gloom and doom, will have to be returned.
The post is about trees, native plants, pollinators, rotational grazing and yes, the success of the trees we planted and cleaner streams. I did not mention SL-6. Is there something else bothering you that you had to post your comment on this blog post?
I understand what you are trying to say. Thanks for blithering out all the modeling data, but your logic is flawed, woefully myopic, and you left out a lot. Can you not see the forest for the trees?
First and foremost, E. coli exceedances occur anytime cattle are in the streams, not just during periods of overland flow of runoff. They occur especially in the summer and during low flow periods. This is when riparian buffers do their best work.
Livestock, especially cattle, tear up stream banks and bottoms causing severe erosion and sedimentation. The SL-6 practice does a good job of reducing this stress on streams.
Have you not heard of the Stroud Water Research Center that has proven that a stream flowing through a forested buffer has two to eight times the cleansing power than a non-forested buffer? It’s because of the aquatic ecosystem, fed by the leaves of the trees, processes in-stream pollution – especially nitrogen.
There are many other studies that prove that buffers do indeed filter out nitrogen. I copied and pasted a litany of them from a literary search Virginia Tech put together.
• Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service in Tifton, Georgia, have maintained studies since the early 1980s where deciduous forest buffers have reduced nitrogen from agricultural runoff by 68 percent (Lowrance and others 1984b).
• On the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, scientists estimated a riparian buffer removed 89 percent of the nitrogen from field runoff, mostly in the first 62 feet of the buffer (Peterjohn and Correll 1984).
• On Maryland’s Eastern shore, scientists found riparian buffers removed 95 percent of the nitrates from agricultural runoff (Jordan and others 1993).
• Recent studies in the Nomini Creek watershed northeast of Richmond, Virginia, demonstrated that forested riparian buffers could reduce concentrations of nitrate-nitrogen in runoff from croplands by 48 percent (Snyder and others 1995).
Here’s the link to the full report:
I too am sorry that the SL-6 practice does not require the planting of trees, Virginia missed the opportunity for the cleansing power of trees.
Let me continue.
Are you suggesting we just pave over everything in the Valley and forget about agriculture? Pollution from urban runoff is far more expensive to treat than agricultural runoff. What we need are more farmers and more riparian buffers. The timely and correct land application of manures helps the environment in many ways, one of those is the fact that we need it to grow the food that you, Mr. Webb, put in your mouth.
Wayne – the upper Middle River area where Bobby & Jeanne’s buffer is located has a lot of cattle in the creeks and in the main stem of Middle River. There is very little poultry there. The E. coli data that Friends of the Middle River has collected over the past 3 1/2 years in that area clearly shows a reduction in E. coli from where water enters the buffer to where it leaves the buffer. This reduction is consistent at another buffer we sample in that area. In fact, exceeding the state standard is the norm at most of the fourteen E. coli sites there. Most of our sampling is not at high flows. We all know what will happen at high flows, but cattle typically are not in the River at high flows.
E. coli exceedances occur in that area at all times. The average at the point where water flows into this buffer is 1,334 CFU/100mL. The average where water leaves the buffer is 823 CFU/100mL. The buffer is 1/2 mile long. For those of you not familiar with the state standard, it is currently 235 CFU/100mL.
Direct deposit of animal manure is eliminated with livestock exclusion. That doesn’t change the high nutrient and E. coli levels at high flow because runoff pushes everything into the rivers and streams then. But, right now, in that part of upper Middle River, E. coli exceedance is an everyday problem, not just a high flow problem.
With respect to nitrogen contamination, I agree with Bobby that it has been proven that buffers help reduce nitrogen runoff. Livestock exclusion with or without trees also helps by eliminating the direct deposit of nitrogen.
However, you said “If we want to do anything about nutrient export from the Valley or E. coli problems in the Rivers we need to reduce nutrient application on the land and keep the soil on the land.” I agree that nutrient application has the potential to create a serious problem with the level of nitrogen in our groundwater. If our groundwater becomes seriously contaminated with nitrogen, and the groundwater finds its way to our rivers and/or our wells, which it will, we will have high nitrogen levels regardless of our buffers. This is a conversation we need to have, and it’s not too soon to start it.
Bobby and Jeanne – thanks for your great example and your tireless commitment to good things.
Thanks, David. Glad you stopped in.
What a beautiful story of success when it comes to natural resource management. I remember visiting the farm in 2011/2012 and embracing all of the hard work that was done to restore water quality. I am glad to see pics of a fully grown riparian forest buffer and its positive effects on the environment. I celebrate with you for sticking to the plan and executing even when some people disagreed with your practices. This is a perfect example environmental stewardship.
Al, so good to hear from you! Thanks for your comment. I remember well our days together on the farm, working and enjoying the surroundings. Thanks, you helped make this happen.
Hey there Mr. Whitescarver,
I deeply enjoyed reading through the various blog posts that Dr. Schmitt-Harsh assigned to us, partly due to your writing style, but this post was the most interesting to me. I was particularly surprised by the first two photos comparing the pasture before your addition of the riparian buffers with the after image. While there were fifteen years between those pictures, it’s encouraging that you had recovered tree canopy after only seven years. Transformations like this and the CREP hardwood program later in the article serve to show how quickly nature can recover from the damage we’ve dealt to it in the past. Another aspect of the article that I appreciated were the specifics of the government programs that you utilized and the statistical aspects of the Lessons Learned section. As a student, learning to interpret and understand the analytical side of environmental protection is both engaging and challenging, but provides important insight into the innerworkings of the real world. Thank you for this blog site full of accessible and applicable information!