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How We Live with the River on our Cattle Farm

The following recently appeared on field conservationist Bobby Whitescarver's blog. For more information, please visit his  website.

Poly-Tape electric fence set at high stage so flood water can pass under. Photo by Bobby Whitescarver.
This week's flood prompted this post on how we deal with floodwater from our river with our cattle. It was an out-of-bank flood event but it didn't wash our cattle crossing out because we've learned to work with the river not against it.

Middle River is a tributary of the South Fork of the Shenandoah River. It bisects our farm in Augusta County, Virginia. It's the largest river in the county and it's on the state's "dirty waters" list for fecal coliform from cattle and lack of a "benthic" community. Middle River is a TMDL stream--it's polluted, mostly from cattle.

In order for Middle River to be de-listed as a TMDL stream and be restored, cattle have to be fenced out of it because they pollute the river with their feces and trample the stream banks with their hooves. Their feces contain the fecal coliform that put the river on the list. We know this from Antibiotic Resistance Analysis (ARA) testing. In addition, cow manure adds nitrogen, phosphorous, and other pathogens that not only pollute the water but can compromise bio-security for downstream livestock and humans. Cattle going up and down the steam banks cause soils to be dislodged which enter the steam and clog macro-invertebrate gills. Macro-invertebrates and other animals make up the "benthic" community that helps define a clean stream. Sediment in water is lethal to a "benthic" communty.

Bobby's cattle and farm. Photo by Bobby Whitescarver.
The problem with fencing cattle out of the river is that the river floods, which can severely damage fences or take them out all together. We learned a long time ago that you couldn't fight the river; it's going to flood so you must work with it--not fight it. The secret to long-lived riparian fences is to build them outside of the flood plain or put up inexpensive fences that effectively keep cattle out of the river.

We installed a single strand of barbwire in the flood plain, parallel to the river and charged it with solar power. We get between 3,500 and 6,800 volts on the wire.

A single hot (electrified) barbwire works with our cattle. We could have used smooth wire but for our cattle it's not as effective at keeping cattle out of the riparian area. Sometimes floodwaters go over the top of the fence and the barbs collect debris. It's easy to walk along and just lift or shake the debris off.

We did not want to use a more substantial fence because floodwaters would take it out which would cost a lot of money to replace and downtime.  We have not lost a single post or any line fences using this method.

Single strand electric barbed wire fence used to exclude cattle from riparian areas. Photo by Bobby Whitescarver.
At our river crossing, we put up a two-stage water gap with a single strand of electric poly-tape. When the river level is normal or below we use the lower stage so cattle can cross and drink water from this access point.  When it's going to flood or when we don't have any cattle in that field we move the poly-tape to a higher position on the T-posts so floodwater can pass under.

We also have this crossing rigged to breakaway should floodwaters bring enough force to rip it out.

Virginia has a new program that reimburses farmers for the stream banks they fence out regardless of the type fence is up or how close it is to the bank.


Solar fence charger used to electrify fence. Photo by Bobby Whitescarver.
There are many programs that can help farmers fence livestock out of streams and provide them with alternative watering systems.  In addition, cross-fencing can be put in to help facilitate rotational grazing, improve livestock movement and give them cleaner water to drink. For more information send me an e-mail or contact your local USDA Service Center or your local Soil and Water Conservation District.


Fencing cattle out of any stream will improve its water quality. Once the cows are out a benthic community can survive. All that manure that went downstream will be fertilizer for your pasture instead of pollution in the water. There are other benefits of stream fencing as well, such as more stable stream banks and more wildlife habitat. Cleaner streams in the headwaters like our Middle River helps everyone downstream and will help restore the Chesapeake Bay.

Bobby Whitescarver

Whitescarver lives in Swoope, Va. For more information, visit his website or e-mail him at



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