Water Protection on Farms

In early settlement days, new Virginia landowners carefully selected their homestead sites where there was a woodlot and a stream somewhere on the property. Water was essential for drinking and agriculture; forest was essential for lumber to build a home and outbuildings on the farm; and cleared areas were needed to sow the crops for the family and cattle. This is when the land use and clean water became unbalanced – it is easy to see how the purity of stream water declined. This is all understandable – streams are important to agricultural landowners as a source of water for the household, the cattle, and for crops. Landowners and farmers strive to be good stewards of the land – their livelihood depends on it.

Forested Buffers

The good news is that we’ve learned a lot about water quality and how trees can improve water quality since the early settlement days. Without trees, the banks of the streams and rivers are vulnerable to erosion of soil that ends up in the stream. A buffer of trees along a waterway slows down surface flow and filters fertilizers and chemicals through the uptake of these pollutants by their root systems.

Livestock Impact on Streams

Another practice that accelerated the decline of stream/river water quality was to allow livestock free access to the stream for drinking water. As the cattle access the stream, the vegetation on the bank is trampled leading to erosion. Animal waste is concentrated in the water endangering the health of the herd.

Agricultural Impact on Streams

Crop farmers have a different water resource issues to deal with than livestock owners. The pesticides, fertilizers, and soil erosion related to productive cropland are also hazards to clean water for landowners and the community.

How to Improve Water Quality on Your Farm

Through observation and education, landowners have the opportunity to learn best management practices (BMPs) that can improve water quality and lessen the negative influences of the past. Fencing livestock out of the stream to limit or deny access is a good start. Virginia Tech research teams have found that there is less disease when cows and their calves are not drinking stream water contaminated with feces, pesticides, fertilizers, and other pollutants. Planting back trees and other vegetation on the streambank is another BMP. Soil erosion is reduced or eliminated on well-vegetated banks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed cost-share programs that assist landowners with putting best management practices on their land for the protection of water quality. Forested buffers, cover crops, manure management, and providing alternative water resources for cattle are among 50 such practices. For the specifications to get good BMPs on the ground, visit Soil and Water Conservation District programs and services.

The cost-share programs have alternative water sources associated with the fencing and tree planting programs. There are also modest maintenance payments that help with any damage to fences and equipment from storms and flooding. For landowners that don’t have streams, alternative water sources like water stations set up with wells may be an option.

Ponds can also help provide water resources for livestock and irrigation of crops. Help from water resource engineers who can be involved in design and plans for effective ponds will prevent failures in implementation.

For crop farmers, the use of cover crops and terraces as well as crop rotation help reduce soil erosion. No matter what type of agriculture a landowner practices, having a sensitivity to clean water resources is important.

Agencies that assist agricultural landowners realize that incentives to do the right thing are important. While economics are a large part of decisions, often, doing the right thing is a major incentive as well. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation sponsors a ”Virginia Clean Water Farm Award” and the “Bay Friendly Farm Award”, which are presented to landowners in recognition for doing their part to preserve water quality and also encouraging others to do the same. Look for the Clean Water Farm sign as you drive through the rural areas of Virginia and thank the landowners for keeping Virginia’s waterways clean.

Assistance may be available to assist agricultural landowners with their efforts to protect water quality, such as planting riparian buffers, animal-activated watering system connected to a well, fencing, and more.

Get help incorporating proper BMPs to protect water quality on your property, as well as provide guidance about planting riparian forest buffers.

Find a DOF Forester

Additional Resources

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Forests and Water - Get the Most Out of Your Land
Forests and Water – Get the Most Out of Your LandP00211

Publication is directed to landowners to educate about forest buffers, stream water quality, watersheds, riparian buffer tax credit program and other programs that can assist. Printed copies available.

Herd Health
Herd Health

Brochure by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation provides tips for keeping cattle healthy through better watering techniques.


Contact Us

Your local DOF forester can help guide you through incorporating proper BMPs to protect water quality on your property, as well as provide guidance about planting riparian forest buffers. Contact your local DOF forester.

For more information or questions, e-mail us or use our contact form.