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Phillip Nelson, Appomattox County

Putting Practices into Overdrive

(Photos by Barbara Bowen)

Interview/Photos - May 16, 2011

When Phillip Nelson got an opportunity to purchase his cousin’s property in Appomattox County, he wasn’t sure he wanted it. The land had been in his family for about 50 years, but he was in his 50s and 75 acres is a lot of land to manage. When he heard that it might be developed, however, Nelson told his wife “We have to buy it.”

Nelson then started a beef cattle operation with a herd of about 50 cows. He says he quickly noticed that the land had some health issues and thought about installing conservation practices. A neighbor gave him contact information for the Rustburg Service Center.

“We had two or three dry summers a few years ago, and the cows stood in the stream all day long,” says Nelson. “It was sickening to think that they were actually drinking that water. Then, we would have a big thunderstorm and the stream would look pretty and clean again. You have to wonder where all that manure and sediment goes. That convinced me to look into working with NRCS.”

Nelson called Rustburg District Conservationist Don Yancey to discuss his concerns. Soil Conservation Technician Ann Evans came to the farm and presented options for cleaning up the water on his land. Nelson had already put in a watering system at his barn in the first year he owned the property.

“The cows preferred that water to the creek,” says Nelson. "They would walk from one field past the creek all the way to the watering trough and came to it every morning and evening."

The creek on Nelson’s property flows into the James River and then on to the Chesapeake Bay. He enrolled in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI) program as a beginning farmer in 2009. The original plan called for approximately 6,600 feet of fencing (cross, exclusion and field boundary), approximately 3,800 feet of pipeline and four watering systems over three years. Performing much of the work himself, Nelson completed all his scheduled practices in just one year!

“It’s wonderful to work with a landowner like Mr. Nelson,” says Evans. “He put his plan into overdrive! Most folks just don’t move that quickly.”

He says he found the 10-foot flexible fencing setbacks to be attractive because his stream runs the entire length of the farm, and he would have lost a lot of grazing area. Nelson’s watering troughs are fenced with gates for cattle access from any pasture. 

“Farmers will tell you that you can’t have too many gates,” says Nelson. “With all the gates I’ve installed, it is so much easier to move the cows around myself and get them where I want them to go. Previously, I had to have three or four people help me, and I still had to do a lot of walking. I’m kind of against that.”

The fencing also helped to restore more than an acre of wetland on his property. In just one year, the lush plants offer a peaceful oasis for both wildlife and landowner.

“My herd health has improved considerably, and I don’t have to go down in mud holes looking for lost cows,” he says. “Now, this is one of my favorite places to go on the whole property.”

Though the first chapter is complete, the book on Nelson’s conservation journey is still being written. He is interested in a number of practices such as manure storage and pasture and hayland planting that weren’t offered in the first year but have since been added to CBWI. 

He recommends that other producers work with NRCS to improve soil and water quality on their land.

“The day is coming when all farmers will be required to do this,” he says.

Check back for updates on Phillip Nelson's progress in transforming his land.

View and download more photos of Nelson's conservation practices.

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