When fencing or other strategies exclude livestock from streams, water quality improves through reduced direct nutrient inputs, bacteria loads, streambank erosion, sediment loads, and streambed trampling.

But many farmers do not adopt livestock exclusion practices because they fear the loss of productive farmland, the cost of installation and maintenance, government intervention, and the stringent requirements on fencing practices. Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension are developing, implementing, and evaluating adaptive and community-based strategies for reducing nutrient loads from the South Fork of the Shenandoah River watershed in an effort to advance livestock exclusion practices and to evaluate the effect on water quality.

“Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Shenandoah Resource Conservation and Development Council have worked with 16 farmers in the area who have installed fencing ranging from three feet to 100 feet from a stream as part of a pilot project,” says Eric Bendfeldt, a community viability area specialist for Extension’s Northwest District Office. “We are giving these farmers flexibility to design the streamscape to best fit their needs.”

In particular, the project focuses on two specific watersheds in the Shenandoah Valley and involves working closely with landowners to encourage community involvement and participation. The project team has worked closely with farmers within the Old Order Mennonite community. Although farmers in this community do not accept state or federal funds — and therefore are not required to follow government livestock exclusion guidelines — some farmers have voluntarily excluded livestock from streams and have implemented fencing, watering, and grazing systems adapted for their farm, management needs, and stream segment. These typically include polywire and fencing along the stream edge.

“Initially, we focused on the Muddy Creek and Long Glade watersheds — the latter having a very high visual impact of cattle in the streams,” says Luc Claessens, a research scientist in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “We are taking a dual-paired watershed approach. In other words, two systems have fencing while two others do not. This allows us to study the effect of fencing on water quality. We are using automated samplers for storm events, and we also sample in between storms.”

This collaboration has already resulted in a proposed change in Virginia’s livestock exclusion programs and conservation strategies. Richmond officials are piloting a program that allows a 10-foot setback — as opposed to the 35-foot state and federal setback guidelines — in areas where streams are listed as impaired and do not meet the state’s water-quality guidelines to encourage greater participation and implementation of livestock exclusion practices.

Headed by Conrad Heatwole, associate professor of biological systems engineering, the research team hopes to improve water-quality conditions along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, which is impaired by excess nutrient loads, without jeopardizing the $165 million dairy and beef operations in Rockingham and Augusta counties. In addition to building greater community awareness of local and regional water-quality issues in a priority area within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the project aims to advance livestock exclusion practices by developing individualized plans with farmers, providing limited funding, evaluating the effect of adaptive fencing on water quality, promoting financial incentives and conservation programs to farmers, and serving as a model for adaptive livestock exclusion throughout the Chesapeake Bay basin.