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Butch Snow and Melody Tennant, Rockbridge County

“I want to get livestock out of streams so that the water from here down to the Chesapeake Bay can support fish or, in a perfect world, be drinkable.” - Butch Snow
 

May 24, 2011 ... Making Conservation Connections for Water Quality

William “Butch” Snow and his wife Melody grew up in California, getting their water from the local utility company, and know how quickly it can become a precious commodity. Now, they manage several Rockbridge County tracts of land with multiple water sources and are determined to be good stewards of this most basic resource.

When Snow bought the small farm in Rockbridge County in 1988, he was still working in Washington, DC. After Butch retired, the Snows officially moved to Virginia and began learning to effectively manage a beef cattle operation. (They currently have 65 cows and plan to expand the herd to at least 100.) They began working with Lexington District Conservationist Charlie Ivins (now based in Verona) in 2010 because they wanted to transition to a grass-fed operation. 

“We wanted to stop spending all our money on running tractors and getting so much hay,” says Snow. “I knew programs were available but didn’t know how they all worked.  If you want to talk with someone who is here to help you, start with NRCS.”

Ivins recommended transitioning to a complete rotational grazing system to address the Snows’ resource concerns, which included large open pastures, poor water placement, cattle in the streams and woods, streambank erosion, and invasive weeds. 

“It’s real easy to get started but was a little more involved than I thought,” Snow says. “I learned about things like pasture management plans that I didn’t realize were possible, but I needed to do to improve my operation.”

The Snows are using a combination of CREP and EQIP funding to put in the practices outlined in their conservation plan which addresses the two tracts of land they own (see abbreviations list at left). 

Butch is also interested in expanding the focus to another 600 acres they rent on three adjoining farms. In fact, the former salesman has been contacting the absentee landowners in Utah, Virginia, and New York to sell them on the benefits of conservation so they will “buy into” programs like CREP. 

“I needed to get owners to consider doing some of these improvements I’m making on the land I rent,” explains Snow. “The people are the most complicated part. I have to insert myself to introduce the owners to the NRCS staff when I’m not actually doing the work.” 

In 2010, the Snows installed four watering troughs, a well, and some cross fencing on their land. Butch also installed fence to exclude livestock from two of the streams on his property as well as some woodlands. One pasture was overseeded with clover to improve forage quality.

On one farm he leases, he has overseen installation of several practices, including stream exclusion fencing, a stream crossing, watering troughs, and a well. On other tracts he manages, stream exclusion fencing, CREP buffers, a stream crossing, and a spring development and watering troughs have been installed. He is also planting warm season grasses and working to eradicate invasive species.  

“An unmanaged pasture not only looks bad, but it will not help natural resources,” says Butch. “When cows eat grass down to a tabletop and root structures rot and die, you’re basically killing your ground, and it can turn the pasture into a lot. You need fences, water and shade. You also need to move the cattle around for the grass to grow back.”

The Snows’ prescribed grazing system offers economic as well as conservation benefits. According to Ivins, increased days of grazing can actually reduce fossil fuel usage from hay making. Snow says he has reduced his hay usage from 660 round bales (400 tons) five years ago to 200 tons this year. He is also going beyond the conservation practices to actively tracking results. 

“He does water monitoring to see how he’s cleaning up the streams,” says Ivins. “The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has put him on the Hays Creek TMDL Agricultural Working Group Committee, and he’s attending all the meetings. (Walker's Creek is a tributary of Hays Creek and part of the Hays Creek TMDL Project.) 

“He’s gotten together with his neighbors to clean up the upper part of Hays Creek, which has recently been added to the TMDL list for bacterial impairment. He has collected fecal coliform counts on both streams where he has exclusion fencing.”

The presence of fecal coliforms in surface water indicates contamination by human or animal waste. These wastes carry bacteria that can cause gastrointestinal illness or infection if water gets in the eyes, nose, mouth or open wounds.

“I am really interested in clean water and wanted to know if all these practices would really help,” says Snow. “We tested in three spots before and after the cattle had been excluded. Where the cattle were in the stream, the results were bad. A quarter mile downstream, the readings were better. It is remarkable how quickly a stream can clean itself.

“A number of people along Walker’s Creek are interested in testing for water quality, but they aren’t the ones who own livestock. We’ve been trying to get farmers interested in testing and restoring the upper portion of Walker’s Creek. I want to get livestock out of streams so that the water from here down to the Chesapeake Bay can support fish or, in a perfect world, be drinkable.”

Check back for updates on the Snow's progress in transforming their land.

View and download more photos of the Snow's conservation practices.

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Abbreviations:

CREP - Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program

TMDL - Total Maximum Daily Load