By Bobby Whitescarver
My wife and I are beef cattle farmers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Two years ago, we signed up for the Virginia Agricultural Best Practices Cost-Sharing Program. We used this state funding to fence our livestock off the waterways and develop a rotational grazing system. The program opened up a huge opportunity for us to water our cows in parts of the farm that had none.
There’s never been a better time to fence livestock off streams. Virginia provided a record amount of funding this year for its agricultural cost-sharing and related programs, totaling more than $280 million over the next two years. At the federal level, the US Department of Agriculture is also receiving historic levels of investment in agricultural conservation practices. Private non-profit organizations also provide financial and technical assistance.
In addition to benefiting farmers and livestock, these programs also prevent pollution of waterways from the Shenandoah River to the Chesapeake Bay. People downstream want clean water and they are willing to pay for it through these strong programs.
Before we entered Virginia’s cost-sharing program, our cows had one source of water: a creek on the north side of the farm. This meant that we could not fully utilize our land. The cattle stayed by the creek to drink and were reluctant to walk nearly a mile to graze on the south side of the farm.
We have a cow/calf operation and we didn’t want our cows to calve near the creek. Steep banks and wet areas are dangerous places for newborn calves to learn to suckle.
As part of the state program, conservation specialists helped us design a system of six watering stations strategically located throughout the farm.
We installed a mile of fencing to exclude our cows from the stream, a mile of internal fencing to facilitate rotational grazing, and a mile of underground pipe that supplies pressurized water from a well to the six new watering points.
It was a huge effort for us, but we got a lot of help. We were reimbursed over 100% of the costs through three programs that provided funds and technical assistance such as engineering designs and site inspections during construction.
Internal fencing and water troughs help us be more efficient and profitable farmers. We prefer to rotate our cattle to new pastures, but previously we had no water for the cows where we needed it. The internal fence was designed not only to turn the cows to new pastures, but also to help us get the cows into the barnyard when we need to work them.
Why do farmers fence their cows out of waterways?
The number one reason is to get more clean water for their cows spread throughout the farm.
The second reason is to exclude cows from calving risk areas such as steep banks along streams and wetlands. This exclusion fence is good insurance against a dead calf.
The third reason is to improve herd health. If the herd is drinking from streams, the rancher’s biosecurity program to prevent disease and infection is only as good as that of the worst farm upstream. At least 50% of all livestock diseases in the mid-Atlantic states are transmitted by the fecal-oral route. If an infected cow defecates in water upstream, cows downstream could drink contaminated water.
The fourth reason: well-designed fences make it easier for cows to enter the barnyard.
There are other reasons, but the bottom line is that it’s the right thing to do because cattle are destroying streams and polluting the water.
Everything is now voluntary. But on July 1, 2026, Virginia’s cattle bill (HB 1422) could require any farm with 20 or more cows to exclude them from all perennial waterways. This trigger law only comes into effect if Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals have not been met.
Excluding livestock from waterways is one of the most popular and cost-effective best management practices in Virginia. Currently, funding and technical assistance are at historic levels. For more information or to register, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District or local USDA office.
Bobby Whitescarver is a retired USDA cattle rancher and soil defender. He can be contacted through his website at www.gettingmoreontheground.com.