by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time, industrial discharges and municipal sewage treatment plants were the biggest sources of pollution for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. But these “point source” polluters have significantly cleaned up their act, and further gains could cost tens of millions of dollars per facility. Whom do we target now to improve water quality in Virginia?


There really is no way of putting this delicately. Cattle poop a lot. And when they’re standing around, chewing their cuds and doing whatever cows do, they unload fecal bacteria and nitrogen into creeks and streams.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, Virginia was home to 1,540,000 cattle and calves in 2011. Consider this: In rough numbers, cows average 1,200 pounds each. That translates into approximately 1.8 billion pounds of bovine flesh. Compare that to the human population of just over 8 million. The average weight of adult humans in the U.S. is about 180 pounds, amounting to about 1.4 billion pounds of human body mass.

Assuming that cattle and humans produce roughly the same volume of waste products per pound on a daily basis (which, given the difference in our diets is probably not accurate, but humor me while I play this out), Virginia cattle produce roughly 30% more total waste than Virginia humans do. But there is not one single waste water treatment facility dedicated to cleaning up cow poop! WE HAVE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF CATTLE DEFECATING DIRECTLY INTO CREEKS AND STREAMS, AND WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT IT?

Sorry, cows, that’s a no-go zone.

Well, the McDonnell administration is doing something about it. Under a Virginia Enhanced Conservation Initiative, the Department of Conservation and Recreation will reimburse farmers 100% of the cost to install systems — fences, watering troughs, vegetative buffers, wells and pumps — that keep livestock away from waterways.

In the past, Virginia paid farmers 75% of the cost of installing “stream-exclusion systems.” Apparently, that didn’t do the trick, even though, as Governor Bob McDonnell said in in a recent press release, “Studies have also shown that keeping livestock out of streams leads to healthier herds and fewer veterinary bills.” (Think about it … cows pooping and peeing in their own drinking water — that can’t be good.) So, the state has bumped up the reimbursement to 100%.

“Virginia farmers now have a new avenue to increase profitability and conservation on their lands,” McDonnell said. “By focusing on the practice of streamside livestock exclusion, we are helping producers protect their financial interest and do their part to protect Virginia’s precious waters.”

The program is funded to the tune of $3 million per year. I’m not sure how many fences, troughs and vegetative buffers that will pay for, but I’m guessing that it will keep only a small fraction of Virginia’s cattle from befouling our streams. We’ll have to maintain this program for a long, long time before all of our waterways are manure-free. On the other hand, the program could keep a lot more poop out of the water than if the same sum were spent on incremental improvements to municipal waster-water and storm-water-overflow systems.

As with all investments of state funds, however, I would like to see a comparative Return on Investment analysis. Perhaps there are private-sector alternatives tor dealing with cow poop. There are serious proposals afoot to convert manure into methane. There may be sufficiently large cattle herds in Rockingham and Augusta counties to justify such an initiative.

Now, if we could figure out how to deal with cow flatulence, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, we’d really have the cow menace under control.

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15 responses to “Countering the Cow Menace”

  1. the cattle unless they are in the density of feed lots or dairy farms and though I support the approach – I’d point out that using actual measured metrics as baseline BEFORE you implement would help us understand how much improvement we get (or not) from fencing.

    bigger issues are dairy farms, feedlot operations, factory hog and poultry operations.

    What I am opposed to is nebulous “feel good” things that we don’t even know if they are effective or not or even if they are effective.

    we hold sewage treatment plants to strict standards.

    we’re going to have to replicate this approach with runoff….both urban and rural.

    finally, if we are truly serious about these fences and buffers -then there should be a per pound fee that is passed on to the consumer – not that different from a storm water authority that accesses fees based on impervious surfaces.

    We need to take a business approach to this and move away from feel good foolishness… and get serious about what we say we want to do.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    The Raleigh News & Observer won a Pulitzer back in the 1990s for exposing that the huge megafarms for hogs that are sold to big food corporations like Smithfield are incredible feces factories. It used to be that small farms typically had hogs but putting so many of them into giant operations was really new at the time and no one thought of the massive waste problem.

  3. Hog farms in NC (and I think Va) can have 10,000 or more animals who generate as much poop as a town of 10,000 people would.

    And yet in NC and Va – the level of effluent treatment is pitiful and nothing like what a town of 10,000 sewage plant requirements would need to be,.

    Next time you chow down on a pork chop or a rotisserie chicken, consider the amount of poop you just generated yourself and dumped in a stream somewhere because that’s where a lot of it ends up – untreated.

    that’s ought to tamp down the ole appetite.


    then again… we could have some more nasty big govt job-killing regulations… to help, eh?

    naw… we don’t need no more stinkin central govt regulations, right?

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Great post. Really good.

    Animal waste is a huge part of nutrient loading in the Chesapeake Bay. It certainly isn’t the only culprit. Sewage treatment plants, septic fields, automotive emissions (nitrogen dioxide, in particular) all contribute to the problem.

  5. sewage treatment plants are a huge success story as most of them have made major advances in the last few decades and many are now approaching the limits of technology.

    STPs have, in fact, been made to step up their efforts to actually release effluent that has LESS nitrogen and phosphorous in it than the water that contains ABOVE the plants.

    It has actually been proposed but not implemented that holding the STPs to stricter limits would be cheaper than implemented upstream restrictions – but then common sense and reality intruded.

    But you cannot raise 10,000 hogs or 100,000 poultry in a few acres and “store” the poop.. it has to go somewhere just like the poop that STPs extract and have to incinerate, compost or spread on Ag fields (where it will run right back into the rivers and water table if not done properly).

    the problem is not a few cows pooping in or adjacent to the river.

    the problem is cattle roaming on a lot more land that “tilts” towards the river and funnels the waste down swales and smaller rivulets and creeks towards the river.

    so the solution to “fence along the rivers” is hopelessly naive and if you promote yourself as an advocate (govt AND non-profit group) AND you do not tell people this reality – then you’re not telling people the truth about the problem much less what it is going to take to really – effectively address it.

    So far the folks who advocate these things don’t deal with cost-benefit calculations – at all nor do they actually want to measure the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous in the river – for instance above and below a major cattle operation to see – if indeed, the implemented measures are indeed working.

    this is what I mean about being serious about dealing with the problem instead of what I call ‘feel good’ approaches.

    You are serious in my view ONLY if you not only acknowledge the problem – but you are actually committed to metrics and measuring to assure that the recommended changes are actually working and not just “feel good” measures.

    we’re all at fault here because we are so easily satisfied with these professed “solutions” that are promoted by both non-profit groups and govt groups – BOTH are complicit in their ineffective approaches and their willingness to NOT commit to real metrics and measurements to validate that the approaches are working.

    1. Good point. Virginia Tech, the Extension Service, the Ag Department — somebody — ought to be conducting measurements to ensure that these fences and berms are working. It would be nice to confirm that our $3 million-a-year investment is having the impact we want it to.

  6. In the Midwest, more nitrate and nitrite runoffs into streams emanate from synthetic fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate, used to supercharge corn growth. In springs with heavy rains, such flash fertilizers can quickly wash off the topsoil and into waterways.

    Large headcount herds also pose a problem. In the day when most farms managed small herds, these geographically dispersed cows posed little problem with their manure. There was enough land to absorb the output. Back then, most farms dispersed the manure even more by spreading it on fields for fertilizer.

    But with highly concentrated herds in a very small geographical area (stocking density), animal waste becomes an imposing problem: not only the waste itself, but the toxic bacteria in this waste, created by the high stocking density of livestock. The manure from a few free-range cows enjoying a low headcount per acre rarely have the more toxic bacterias, since lower headcounts also lower pathogens in a herd.

    Cattle feedlots can reach stocking densities of over 400 head per acre.

  7. E.L. Beck makes EXCELLENT observations!

    there IS, in fact, a known head count for a give pasture to support a certain number herd where said pasture will naturally absorb and accommodate a known number and beyond that number there is polluted runoff.

    it’s not that different than say, calculating the percent of impervious surfaces in an urban area to determine the runoff in excess of a property’s ability to absorb it.

    this said – as E.L. Beck as alluded – there are KNOWN protocols for calculating runoff for various storm events. We actually size storm ponds these days according to storm event criteria and the last I heard most were for 2 or 10 year events..

    but the entire point here is that we do have some known approaches to metrics and measuring yet we continue to treat it as if it were some kind of a black art.

    There was just recently a huge kerfuffle over the fact that the computer model the Chesapeake Bay folks was using was dead wrong, in no small part, because they had steadfastly refused to have it field validated.

    Now how can you REALLY be SERIOUS about a cost-effective approach to this problem if you OPPOSE metrics and validation?

    You play this game – and the would be “regulated” realize you are not serious and playing games and so they oppose you on the same basis and what happens ? You end up with a de-facto sumo wrestling contest… and nothing really gets truly addressed.

    McDonnell wants to “use” some money form some fund.

    I say.. deal with it like you would a storm water authority – assess a fee to pay for the mitigation but also require that the mitigation actually be measured for effectiveness and insist that if it is not effective or not effective enough that we know the truth and we go back at it until the changes made actually result in effectiveness.

    The folks who re-cycle plastic bags and buy eco-friendly products do not seriously contribute to solutions. They are the feel-good society.

    the folks who strike me as the most interested in real solutions are the farmers who are being regulated and proposed to do “stuff” based on little more than an computer model that the proponents refuse to validate and the regulators who want regulations whether they are truly effective or not.

  8. re: ” In the Midwest, more nitrate and nitrite runoffs into streams emanate from synthetic fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate, used to supercharge corn growth. In springs with heavy rains, such flash fertilizers can quickly wash off the topsoil and into waterways.”


    If you travel in the midwest you’ll notice that there are millions and millions of acres under cultivation with billions of pounds of fertilizers and rivers tend to be smallish and sluggish and one would think in terms of nutrients that the concentrations would be much much higher than many of the former family farms in the east that are in pasture are regrowing trees.

    One would think it informative to be able to compare midwestern nutrient levels, discontinued farms in the east (that have impervious surfaces but no fertilizer and no stock animals), low density farm/stock activities, factory farms, and finally undeveloped lands – National, State parks and forests.

    For instance, does anyone monitor and document the streams and rivers that flow from the George Washington National forest hollows that are undeveloped, not timbered and not farmed – just covered in natural vegetation?

    In other words what is the “background” level of nitrogen and phosphorous in Va.

    and compare that to rivers and creeks that do have developed, farmed, forested activities.

    In a given watershed – you should get different reading on different creeks depending on the intensity (or not) of farming/other activities that occur in that watershed.

    we have none of this.

    If you asked 100 people who are involved as advocacy organizations or the govt – involved in the nutrient issue to show you a comparison between the various tributaries on a river system, like the james or Rappahannock – down the main stem with readings on each tributary as it confluences with the bigger river

    .. they will tell you that either they don’t know or the data itself does not exist.

    The question that farmers are rightly asking is – if you don’t know this kind of information – how can you be using essentially a one-size-fits all approach – which is applied to each parcel of land regardless of what the actual nitrogen/phosphorous levels are in the stream they are adjacent to.

    this is not a cogent policy. this is not a cost-effective policy. this is not an EFFECTIVE policy.

    how we can have this many people working on this issue and they lack basic data upon which to make informed decisions is comical and disturbing.

    what it really means to me is that these folks – with good intentions – are not really serious about what they are doing. They want to do “good things” for the environment but it’s more akin to the lady who saves plastic bags andto recycle and a rain barrel and composting garden but then uses detergent with phosphorous in it, fertilizes her lawn and dumps medications down the drain.

  9. It struck me that there are two natural cycles going on here. The natural one and the political one. The first has been disrupted, the second (which is less easily thwarted) continues.

    The natural cycle is out of balance. The feedlots are creating a lot of manure, in the fields they’re spreading a lot of nitrates, and it’s getting into the water.

    Technology has created the problem by making these big feedlots and massive farming operations possible. But this has resulted in an imbalance that has been solved by dumping waste into the environment rather than handling it like they used to – by using it as fertilizer. Technology could help solve the imbalance but the incentives are not there so long as environmental degradation is an allowable solution. The incentives need to be changed by requiring the polluters to stop or pay for the environmental degradation. Manure processing plants to turn it into usable fertilizer – seems possible to me, so why not? We need somethign like a manure pipeline that runs from eastern North Carolina to the fieilds of Iowa and Missouri.

    The political cycle continues unabated. Thank heavens for these environmental groups that force the politicians to at least recognize the problems. The farmers who create the pollution cry “why pick on us”? Where are the statistics?, why am I am paying more that that person over there?, don’t y0u want cheap food?” These are all legitimate questions, but they don’t address the problem – they deflect it from themselves. I hope that there are serious politicians out there though who will try to answer the questions and solve the problems – that is what government is for. The process over the last 50 years or so has been positive as issues are recognized and science and technology have been applied.

  10. The McDonnell Administration is doing this after decades of arm twistng and threats by the feds.

    Figur $12 per foot of fence and 3Million dollars will protect 250,000 feet of stream bed. My Little farm alone could take 5000 feet of fence – and that is just for the streambeds, not the remaining fence needed to enclose the adjacent pastures so as to be usable. That could easily be another 150,000 feet of fence. $3 million might do 50 farms, similar to mine, but my bet is that far fewer and larger farms will get most of the money.

    The last time I looked into this, I was not eligible because I have no cows: I just sell feed to people who do have animals, so my nutrients wind up someplace else. I would have to get some cows and let them into the streambeds in order to be eligible, and then I could get in line.

    The buffer along the streambed is pretty substantial, if you have a number of streams crossing your property, even if they are dry most of the time, you could lose half your property to the buffer zones: I seem to remember Harry Atherton complaining about that, because his farm has a number of streambeds.

    Runoff does not happen all at once. The land acts like a chromatograph column: the nutrients stick to one soil particle after another and they have to be washed to move from oneparticle to the next. As a result Larry’s depiction of the problem is inaccurate: the buffers do provde an effective reduction in nutrients reaching the streams, especially since they are heavily vegetated.

    Feedlots are not considered farming operations, and they operate under entirely different sets of rules, more akin to factories than to farms. Many feedlots do have their own sewage treatement systems, often including gassification plants. Mostly they are out west, where the corn is. It is cheaper to ship the cows to the corn than to ship corn east to the cows. Because feedlots are found where large amounts of grain (especially corn) are grown, Virginia does not have many feedlots.

    Dairy farms are another matter: they have high population densities for their size, since the cows have to be kept close to the milking parlor. A lot of feed is brought in and manure has to be mechanically distributed back to the pastures.

    A good part of the Virginia cattle business is purebred seed stock, which is kept for semen or sold to improve herd elsewhere. One local farm lost a bull that wandered the country side for months before it was found some forty miles away, and returned by a very honest farmer: the bull was worth $100k.

    Here is the extension service budget for keeping 100 cows, for which you will need around 300 acres.
    It shows you can expect a profit of around $10,700 per year, and it assumes you can get the land for only $18 per acre per year, and you already have the fence. ($18/acre implies a land price of $360/per acre: good luckwith that.)

    Bonus question: How are cow pies and blondes alike? The older they get the easier they are to pick up.

    1. Hydra, keep your day job if considering earning by jokes!

      What I was trying to convey (in part) was that rivers are no monolithic main stems without tribs, creeks, rivulets, etc.

      You can verify this yourself by just looking at a GOOGLE satellite view of a any place that you are familiar with including Hydra’s farm if he would supply the lat/long.

      Pastures and crop fields are often not THAT flat – at some point most start to tilt and undulate and those shallow depressions almost always join others to form creeks and streams when then flow into rivers.

      And my supposition is if you went to a farm with cows and pastures and did measure nutrients not only along the main stem of the river but it’s many incoming streams and creeks – the streams and creeks that come from farm/cattle operations is WHERE you are going to find substantial SOURCES of higher concentration nutrients ….

      AND.. UNLESS you have some slick trick to dam up the side creeks and remove the nutrient from them – that JUST putting fence-lines along the main stem of a river is not going to be very effective.

      Furthermore, if you actually did MEASURE the main stem of rivers, you would likely verify what I am saying.

      you can have a main stem that is all fenced and yet a creek entering in the middle would boost the nutrient levels substantially.

      All and all to say that the sound-bite, “feel-good” idea of just fencing and buffering the main stem is not the whole story and – likely will not be that effective if nutrients coming in from side streams are as big or bigger a problem.

      but this is what I mean by being serious about the clean-up effort.

      it’s hard and frustrating work to deal with these realities and no where, not from the NGO advocacy groups nor the govt have we heard the real comprehensive story that needs to be addressed if we really are going to make progress.

  11. How much regulation do you think a farmer can stand when he has an investment worth $2 million or more and it is returning him $10,700 per year, that is he has an ROI of 0.5%?

    The only way this works is that someone on the farm has an off-farm job, that he / she commutes to.

  12. Natural background concentrations of nutrients in streams and rivers of the conterminous United States.
    Smith RA, Alexander RB, Schwarz GE.
    SourceU.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia 20192, USA.

    Determining natural background concentrations of nutrients in watersheds in the developed world has been hampered by a lack of pristine sampling sites covering a range of climatic conditions and basin sizes. Using data from 63 minimally impacted U.S. Geological Survey reference basins, we developed empirical models of the background yield of total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) from small watersheds as functions of annual runoff, basin size, atmospheric nitrogen deposition rate, and region-specific factors. We applied previously estimated in-stream loss rates to yields from the small watershed models to obtain estimates of background TN and TP yield and concentration throughout the stream/river network in 14 ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Background TN concentration varies from less than 0.02 mg L(-1) in the xeric west to more than 0.5 mg L(-1) along the southeastern coastal plain. Background TP concentration varies from less than 0.006 mg L-(1) in the xeric west to more than 0.08 mg L(-1) in the great plains. TN concentrations in U.S. streams and rivers currently exceed natural background levels by a much larger factor (6.4) than do TP concentrations (2.0). Because of local variation in runoff and other factors, the range of background nutrient concentrations is very large within some nutrient ecoregions. It is likely that background concentrations in some streams in these regions exceed proposed nutrient criteria.

  13. correct. Now lets see how this and similar studies have been incorporated into the “Save the Bay” feel-good world.

    one would think that in that world that you’d START with validating ANY computer model by comparing what the model predicts for ‘background’ levels (totally undeveloped land with only wild animals on it and no man-made impervious surfaces and what the reality is in the field – and you’d go from there.

    you’d build a database of actual measured conditions on all of Virginia’s rivers and tributaries and you’d have a map – color coded – to show the concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous and then you’d validate your model by comparing it’s output with the field data.

    Then before you’d put costly restrictions on any farm -whether those costs belong to the farmer or to tax payers – you’d STILL want them to be cost-effective – you’d use the model and you’d actually perform field measurements. You’d use those measurements to help determine what mitigation to use – and you’d also use those measurements – and changes to improve the model so that the model itself would concur with the before conditions and after – results.

    In other words, you have to do more that say you are using “science”. You have to actually use it and you have to want to have it have public scrutiny from those it affects – farmers and taxpayers.

    There is one Congressman in Va who supports this kind of approach – Whitman and I’ll be honest, this is the kind of thing I have, in the past, expected from the GOP rather than what is out there right now masquerading as the GOP and more worried about vaginal probes and the like.

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