Virginia dairy farmer Gerald Garber is a big advocate of farm conservation practices, but not necessarily because he’s a committed environmentalist. He’s a believer because soil and water conservation practices produce healthier dairy cows and a leaner, cleaner farm operation.
“Everybody’s got a different reason for fencing the streams (to prevent livestock from fouling water quality), but with us, it started out about animal health,” Garber says in this month’s The Progressive Farmer magazine.
“People have farm ponds to water cattle, and we discovered they were disgusting. Heifers would get sick from being in them in hot weather, contracting mastitis.”
Mastitis is the single most costly disease to the dairy industry. It causes decreased milk production and quality, increased treatment costs, shortened lactations, and in some cases animal death. One type of mastitis is most easily controlled by keeping animal surroundings as clean and dry as possible, minimizing contact with manure, polluted water, and mud.
So using a variety of federal and state conservation cost-share programs and technical assistance from now-retired USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service expert Bobby Whitescarver, Garber excluded all his livestock from farm ponds. He eventually fenced off six miles of streams on Cave View Farms, the 2,000-acre spread he owns with partners Keith and Paul Wilson in Augusta County, Va.
“Our rule here now is, if you can see a footprint, the gate needs to be closed,” he tells the magazine. “We don’t wind up with any bare lots…The cattle are in an absolutely clean environment.”
Again, Garber’s chief concern is a healthy dairy herd. But the conservation practices Cave View Farms has installed have also helped restore water quality in the North River tributary that flows through this Shenandoah Valley farm. And that means cleaner water in the Shenandoah River, the Potomac River, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
Reducing farm runoff pollution is among the key goals of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the federal-state plan to restore the Bay. That’s because agricultural runoff is one of the largest sources of nutrient and sediment pollution plaguing the Bay system, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and silt choking Bay rivers and streams.
Like Garber, many farmers are using soil and water conservation practices to reduce runoff, and their efforts over the years have cut farm pollution significantly, to about 50 percent of what scientists say will be needed to restore the Bay system to health. Clearly more work on farms -- and in urban and suburban areas -- must be done if Virginia and the Bay region are to hit their 2025 clean water targets.
But the conservation practices farmers are being asked to use across the Bay region must produce more than clean water benefits. They must produce benefits for farms and farmers as well. Cave View Farms, among the Shenandoah Valley’s largest dairy and crop farms and a 2010 winner of Virginia’s Clean Water Farm Award, is Exhibit A that practical farming and ecological conservation can, and should, go hand in hand.
As Garber tells The Progressive Farmer, “You can have a big farm and still practice conservation. Size is not relevant to ecology. Attitude is.”
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Top photo by Bobby Whitescarver; bottom photo CBF staff)