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Image of Virginia Cooperative Extension agents John Benner, Frank Nolen, and Will Nolen working on a no-till drill back.
No-till seeding of clovers in pastures during the winter can improve forage quality. Local farmer Will Nolen (bottom right) hammers the seed-metering drive of his no-till drill back in line with the hopper sprocket to ensure the clover seed continues to flow into the seeding tubes. Virginia Cooperative Extension agent Matt Booher checks the seed box while Frank Nolen looks on. Their work will help preserve the soil as well as protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Agents work with livestock managers to protect water systems in the Shenandoah Valley

“A small problem upstream becomes a big problem in the Chesapeake Bay,” Booher said.

Contact Zeke Barlow

Changes to the way livestock graze in fields can have deep impacts on nearby water systems.

That’s why Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Augusta County agents Matt Booher and John Benner are working closely with Shenandoah Valley livestock managers to safeguard water systems located upstream from the Chesapeake Bay, with research-backed grazing best management practices.

Booher and Benner are working with livestock managers in the Shenandoah Valley — where a large portion of the state’s livestock and poultry industry is located — to incorporate water conservation into their operations. The agents help managers adopt stream-exclusion practices in addition to cost-share programs administered by local Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the National Resources Conservation Service.

Through the cost-share programs, livestock managers can integrate management practices that protect streams running through their land, such as installing fences that keep livestock from streams and allowing vegetative buffers to grow between streams and fences.

“The concept of that buffer can create hesitation,” Benner said. “But you see a tremendous difference in terms of local vegetation that comes with that stream, compared to the denuded areas that you would see if cattle still had stream access.”

Other funding-eligible practices include cross-fencing, which involves sectioning off portions of pastures for rotational grazing and installing watering systems that can bring freshwater to livestock from sources other than a stream. While these options can be cost-prohibitive, the cost-share program makes cross-fencing and alternative watering systems financially feasible.

Image of  John Benner, Frank Nolen, and Will Nolen.
Virginia Cooperative Extension agent John Benner (middle) has been working with local farmers Frank Nolen (left) and Will Nolen (right) on no-till practices that will help protect the soil and in turn, watersheds that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

Beyond the cost-share practices, Booher and Benner work with livestock managers to optimize the use of a wide range of land management practices in their grazing plans based on their own unique landscapes and find solutions that works best for individual farmers.

As Extension agents, their goal is to equip livestock managers with information to develop controlled grazing plans. According to Booher, there are general but essential principles they often advise, including letting the pastures rest from continuous grazing and not grazing plants too close to the ground.

“How you actually do that can look a thousand different ways, based on factors like the farm’s topography, how the cattle herd is managed, and how frequently you’ll move fences,” Booher said.

For that reason, the agents help producers develop custom grazing plans adapted to their needs and the land’s conditions with technical expertise from Extension, other agencies, and the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council. 

The groups work together to hold grazing schools and workshops for producers. The grazing schools are two-day, immersive training sessions split between lectures in the classroom and hands-on learning in the field, where instructors identify grasses, demonstrate uses of fencing and ways to allocate new pasture to cows, and more.

In these small-group sessions, producers are matched with a grazing expert from Extension or its partners to develop a custom grazing plan that fits each producer’s specific needs.

“There’s so much variability,” Benner said. “Getting Extension, producers, and agencies in the same room to talk about production aspects, rotational grazing, improvements in production, as well as conservation elements, really gets farmers to think holistically. They can improve conservation and production at the same time.”

Protecting land and streams has built-in benefits. By integrating stream exclusion with better forage management, producers create more paddocks — large fields subdivided into smaller ones — which provides rotational grazing options for their livestock.

This, in turn, lowers production costs, as pasture is significantly less expensive than hay as a feed source. Producers then need to buy less hay, which typically accounts for 70 to 80 percent of growing or maintaining an animal, according to Virginia Tech researchers who conclude that improving pasture management is one of the single greatest opportunities for lowering production costs.

 “Getting Extension, producers, and agencies in the same room to talk about production aspects, rotational grazing, improvements in production, as well as conservation elements, really gets farmers to think holistically. They can improve conservation and production at the same time.”

According to Benner, investing in stream exclusion measures and incorporating them into grazing plans can result in long-term cost reduction for producers — and will go a long way for conservation efforts in the Shenandoah Valley.

While the Extension agents continue to inform producers about the financial and environmental benefits, they’re also using their platform to spread research-backed information about livestock grazing. They work closely with researchers at Virginia Tech who are studying the effects of livestock grazing close to streams and the state of nutrient loading in Virginia watersheds as it relates to agriculture and livestock.

Informed livestock managers are key in the efforts to preserve Shenandoah Valley water systems and the Chesapeake Bay, as their livestock grazing practices have ripple effects for water systems extending far beyond the single swath of land on which they operate.

With the help of Extension agents, livestock managers across the region are developing research-backed grazing plans and stream-exclusion practices that are good for everyone: the producers see long-term financial gains and water quality throughout the Shenandoah Valley and Chesapeake Bay is safeguarded for generations to come.

Written by Erica Corder with original reporting by Suzanne Irby