Breaking the barrier: Ideas for increasing participation in voluntary livestock stream exclusion
Livestock exclusion from streams? Is it time for the big R—regulation? Livestock, especially cattle, are the number one polluter of streams in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They destroy the aquatic ecosystem by dislodging soil, trampling the streambed, and polluting the water with their manure and urine.
We’ve put hundreds of millions of dollars and over 20 years of promotion into voluntary livestock exclusion practices, and yet only 20 percent of the farms in the Shenandoah Valley that need to fence their livestock from streams have done so.
Many believe it’s time to regulate the practice. Maybe so, but I believe there are a couple of ways to break the barrier of low participation with voluntary Best Management Practice (BMP) implementation before we impose regulations. The land-use tax system and carbon credits can help us reach higher participation for perhaps the most important and effective BMPs for cleaner streams—livestock exclusion and riparian buffers.
Farmland with livestock exclusion can produce food and clean water
Farmland is the most economical land-use to treat with BMPs. Cropland and pastures are capable of producing clean water. We need farmland for wildlife habitat, and it can capture and store atmospheric carbon. These are called ecosystem services. Society as a whole benefits when farmland performs these functions.
If pasture or cropland or forest land is not polluting nearby streams and has balanced nutrients and buffers on all perennial streams, what more could we ask? In theory, these lands would be producing clean water and providing wildlife habitat. So why do we tax these land uses? Well-managed farmland should be given a tax credit, and poorly managed farmland should be taxed at a higher rate because society has to clean up the polluted water leaving these farms.
Implement an RMP and get a tax credit
Virginia’s Resource Management Plan (RMP) program could be used to identify those lands that are providing ecosystem services. We could have a tax system with two tiers: one tier for farmers who follow an RMP, giving them tax credits, and another for farmers who do not. The revenue brought in by the latter would offset the credits in the former. For starters, we could make this optional for localities.
Carbon credits for soil organic matter
Another way to break the voluntary BMP barrier is to create a carbon credit program for farmland that is sequestering atmospheric carbon and storing it in the soil.
Plants sequester carbon all the time; it’s their thing—photosynthesis. When farmers reduce tillage, leaving crop residues on the land or apply manure, they are actually putting carbon back into the soil.
The national soil health initiative asks farmers to do just that: reduce tillage, leaving crop residues on the land, and apply manure. This increases soil organic matter, which is carbon.
And we don’t need a complicated bureaucratic system to do it. Simply use a soil test to determine the current amount of soil carbon or soil organic matter (SOM). Then let farmers figure out how to increase it. Believe me, they will figure it out.
Use a soil test in subsequent years, and if the soil carbon is higher, give the farmers a payment or tax credit. We will have less carbon in the atmosphere and healthier soil.
Tax credits for well-managed farmland, higher taxes for polluting farms, and a BMP for storing carbon will greatly increase participation in livestock exclusion from streams and riparian buffers. Let’s try these before we attempt to regulate these important BMPs.
This idea makes so much sense, it’s hard to believe legislators on both sides wouldn’t be supportive of these initiatives. Thank you for getting this thinking started, and good luck in moving forward with legislation.
Sally, thanks for stopping in and posting a comment.
Yes. It’s time.
Kristen, thanks for your comment.
Thanks for raising this issue Bobby and as always, demonstrating what good conservation looks like. Our streams and riparian areas are the ecological bloodstream of a healthy watershed and Chesapeake. I have been in the world of stream protection and riparian restoration for over 40 years, over 25 of those working to create significant incentives and voluntary approaches for farmers. As I get older, my patience fades. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested to change “behavior” and coax progress grudgingly from livestock producers have just not worked. The truth is that we are running out of time. It IS time to talk about the big “R”. Sure, offer incentives…. BUT give the ranching community 5 years to take advantage of them. After that, in 2025 , those not in compliance will have to get a permit to be allowed to graze livestock. If you or I were dumping our sewage into a creek , every day, day after day, year after year, I doubt we would be looked at as good neighbors! We would be in jail.
Al, spot on my friend. Thanks for your comments.
You go, Bobby. Our distinguished colleague, Al Todd, makes a convincing case for an added twist of a deadline, although we know the Agricultural lobby is right up there with Oil and Gas. (Thanks to Al, it’s also the first time I have clearly equated direct deposition from livestock to a straight pipe from one’s house. Of course.) Your use of FieldDoc, with the future added metric of carbon sequestration, really helps quantify the ecological benefits of BMPs. We need to find a compelling way to demonstrate the financial advantages. Your two-tiered tax system would certainly jumpstart that conversation as an above-the-line credit, but herd and soil health has got to have a measurable, demonstrable price tag, too. We should talk about a PR campaign that addresses the farmer’s bottom line. How can we prove, and sell, that “Everybody Wins.” Guilt and responsibility aren’t working.
Well said, Bill. I’ve got to get into FieldDoc and add more BMP’s. Thanks for stopping in.
It’s a tricky situation for sure: https://www.bayjournal.com/article/virginia_faulted_for_handling_of_cattle_pollution_in_shenandoah
Right on, Bill.
Terrific, spot on post Bobby! Thanks.
Megan, thanks for taking the time to read the post and writing your comment. You are terrific.
Great ideas — tax incentives and carbon credits.
The tax element would be a county initiative, no?
That might require some sort of support from state government to keep it on positive terms so the
county governments could modify their ad valorem taxation without cries of bloody murder about
anti-farm tax policy and make it (at least) revenue-neutral for the counties.
Might Emmett Hanger have a thought on this?
And BTW, he has a primary election tomorrow, an easy event to forget, but it’s not every day we get to support a state-level politician who understands and actively works in behalf of water quality.
Thanks for your innovative and stimulating ideas.
Yes, Michael, this would be a local real estate tax. It would require legislation to allow localities to do this. Emmett is aware of this concept. Thanks so much for stopping in with your comments. Yes! the election is tomorrow and we are voting for Emmett.
Thanks for hosting the CBF event. It was a delight to see and experience the Forested Buffer. The most important lesson I derived was that you keep your cattle out of the Middle River with a single strand of electrified barbed wire. As a landowner along a headwaters stream that regularly floods, and can wipe out expensive fencing, the single strand alternative appeals to my Scottish instincts. I’d like to read more about it. Thanks
Ned, thanks for stopping in and posting your comment. And, thanks for your support and friendship.
Bobby, it is impossible at this time to get carbon credits for forests, even those that are fully certified by the American Forest Foundation in the Tree Farm program or by other programs, unless they are at least 3,000 acres because of the high cost of inventorying forest carbon and getting that carbon certified on one of the several national carbon registries — so a forest owner needs to have a LOT of carbon to sell to offset those costs. How would farm carbon be inventoried and then reinventoried the next year to determine how much carbon was captured and stored? And do you think a tax system such as you suggest for farmers could be applied to forest owners who have a DoF Stewardship Plan or otherwise show full integration of BMPs into management goals and activities? There is a desperate need for methods to keep forests as forests, as VA loses ca. 16,000 acres of forest a year, mainly to development.
Chris, thanks for your comments. The carbon credits I write about are not your typical credits as per the carbon registries you suggest. There is a soil test that actually measures soil organic matter (SOM). I’m suggesting a BMP program that pays landowners for increasing SOM on pasture and cropland. Pasture and cropland converted to forest should be included. Of course, forests produce clean water and sequester a lot of carbon and I think well-managed forests should be exempt from real estate taxes, in fact, this land should be granted tax credits for all the ecosystem services they provide.
Spot on, Bobby. This should be in every local newspaper in Virginia.
I live in Mountain Home, Idaho. Idaho is rich with public lands, but much of that natural heritage is grazed by cattle, especially lands looked after by the federal Bureau of Land Management. One day last spring, I documented the presence in a riparian zone on public lands in Owyhee County (the southwest corner of Idaho is all Owyhee) of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and then watched as a beef cow ripped branches off a shrub willow and ate them. This is habitat destruction. The Yellow-billed’s Western population is now listed as threatened under federal code. Little wonder, as a public-lands management agency lets livestock destroy habitat.
Alan, thanks for your comment. I agree! We should not have livestock in riparian areas. Especially on public lands and public lands with critical habitats. Let’s start a movement.
Very enlightening article. I like the idea of the land-use tax system and carbon credits. You also mentioned the large sum that went into evolving your land into the lush state it is today, however, and I’m wondering if all farmers would have it in their budgets to make this change. Do you think it might be worth it to look into putting tax money into creating projects that help farmers implement these riparian buffers and other practices at a lower cost, so that more farmers might take part in it?
Shaye, thanks for stopping in with your comments. There are indeed several robust programs, funded with tax dollars to help farmers implement BMPs.USDA’s EQIP program is the largest federal program.https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/financial/eqip/
And there is the Conservation Reserve Program and many states including Virginia have a cost-share program. There are programs that reimburse farmers more than 100% of the cost to put in riparian buffers and there are private, non-profits that pay even more. Let me know if I can help guide you through the process.
Hi Bobby, reading through your blogs I really appreciate the care and respect that you show for the environment and sharing your knowledge and ideas with us to influence better management practices. Reading through this blog in particular I find it hard to believe that only 15-20% of farmers in the Shenandoah valley have integrated livestock exclusion from streams on their farms. With the amount of benefits that are included both to the environment and to the future value of your land why don’t more farmers implement this in their farms? I see that from your other comments that there is funding available to help with the creation of new riparian buffers on farms, such as the USDA EQIP program, and this should help with much of the cost associated with the upstart of the project, so what are some other barriers that prevent all of these other farmers from moving to this system? I like your ideas on incentivizing these BMP’s with land-use tax credits and carbon credits but is it a purely monetary reason that farms don’t make the switch or is there another barrier such as a lack of knowledge on how to implement a riparian buffer or a hesitancy to implement one because of its long term maintenance and care? Thanks for your time and help
Tyler, thanks for your kind words and questions. We could spend a lot of time on the question, “why don’t more farmers do?” The bottom line is that conservation is not science, it’s sociology. Here’s a link to more answers.
This is a great idea to promote more environmentally friendly practices. What has happened in the three years since you wrote this article? What can the average person do to help?
That law passed! We can talk about it tomorrow.