Some agriculture producers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Greene County, may be mandated to install fencing to keep their cows out of streams on their properties if the state doesn't meet its goals for Phase III of the Chesapeake Bay Water Implementation Program by the end of 2025.
After much debate on Tuesday, Feb. 4, the Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources committee approved a substitution for SB 704 that would have required producers in the watershed with more than 20 cows to install stream exclusion fencing to keep them out of the waterways.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, submitted a substitute that keeps the target date, but the requirements won't come into play unless the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry and the Secretary of Natural Resources "jointly determine that none of the commonwealth's commitments in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan has been satisfied."
One Greene County farmer, Stephen Bowman, traveled to Richmond to speak in favor of Hanger's substitution.
“The more we do voluntarily, the less likely this mandate will happen,” said Greg Wilchens, manager of the Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District.
He said the conservation district, which encompasses five counties—Greene, Madison, Culpeper, Orange and Rockingham—has been signing people up for the voluntary cost-share for stream exclusion fencing at nearly three times the rate they normally do and there is still money to spend.
Wednesday, Feb. 12 is crossover day for the General Assembly where senate bills will go to the house and house bills to the senate before it'll be finalized.
The bill also includes language that those who have cropland of 50 acres or more must submit a site-specific nutrient management plan to the state. A stakeholders group will be of representatives from the Department of Conservation and Recreation, soil and water conservation districts, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the Virginia Agribusiness Council, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Virginia Cattlemen's Association, the Virginia Association of the Commissioners of the Revenue, the Virginia Association of Counties and two legislative members--one from the senate and one from the house.
In the past 10 years, Greene County producers have installed more than 72 stream fencing/grazing management projects, Wilchens said, which have protected 81.3 miles of stream bank and created 339 acres of stream side buffers.
In 2019, the state allocated more than $4 million for agriculture producers to participate in the voluntary programs to achieve the threshold reductions necessary for the Chesapeake Bay plan.
The new options include payment and tax credits for the land that is taken out of service to create the buffers around streambeds.
The program has new options from a 10-foot buffer for the streams to a 50-foot buffer and everything in between.
“Creating a nutrient-management plan is also a very significant undertaking,” Wilchens said.
Wilchens said he believes if producers take advantage of the cost-share voluntary program with the districts, the state will still meet its threshold by 2025.
“The bills only mention cows, but why not just say livestock? What about horses, goats and sheep?” Wilchens asked. “We don’t support the bills. We support the voluntary programs. We support education and producers understanding the benefits of good conservation planning. It isn’t just about the Bay, it’s about their farms, too.”
While the water downstream stays cleaner with the stream exclusion fencing in place, it also keeps the water cleaner for the livestock, whether they drink water from a well or spring, Wilchens said, as it won’t be from the stream they’re defecating in.
Additionally, the fencing helps create a grazing management plan for the producers as the most nutritious parts of forage are when its allowed to grow between 4-10 inches. Good rotational grazing gets producers more pounds of beef per acre per year, allows the plants to rebound quicker and allows producers to have better control of where the livestock is on any given day or time, he noted.
The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Implementation Plan was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Virginia’s Phase III notes the state must create legislation to name a target for implementation for livestock stream exclusion by Dec. 31, 2025. However, it also states that if that is not achieved that all farms in the Chesapeake Baby watershed with livestock—not only cows—accessing perennial streams must provide such fencing. Both bills only deal with “bovines” and not other livestock, however.
“We have 75% of the $4.3 million allocated for agricultural projects this year, which is more than we’ve ever allocated in a year,” he said. “We’ve still got funds and we’re still taking signups. For this to be successful, people have to participate, so we’re asking for participants.”
Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District has additional programs, including riparian buffer plantings, cover crops, nutrient management planning, reforestation of erodible crop and pastureland, woodland buffer filter areas and more.
For more information on these programs, call (540) 825-8591 or visit the district’s website www.culpeperswcd.org and search agriculture programs.