Drinkable, swimmable and fishable water are attributes we would like to take for granted in the natural world. However, as we now know all too well, human activities like agriculture have changed that assumption.
And while farming practices are certainly at least partly to blame for some water quality issues in Vermont and other places, they also have the opportunity to present important solutions. In particular, livestock farms can help. Pastures should be managed in a way that always keeps soil organic matter in mind.
A basic rule of thumb is that keeping farm soils well-covered with growing plants at all times is key for conserving water quality. Covered soils have a healthier structure which allows plants to better absorb nutrients and water. Excess water is then slowly released into waterways.
Water quality problems can happen when livestock are allowed excessive access to water streams because they usually defecate after drinking. In addition, manure runoff from pastures or crops can reach streams in the course of heavy rainfall. Animals also enjoy gathering in shady areas which, if unattended, can potentially degrade nearby stream banks with their hoofs over time.
Then, in order to maintain water quality, riparian buffers must be fenced out. Management intensive grazing (MiG) is a powerful pasture management tool to promote water quality because animals are rotated through fenced-in paddocks and water is brought to them in water tubs. MiG can also promote riparian management by deferring grazing, restricting their access to water ways and avoiding stream bank degradation. Also, because pastures under MIG must always be covered with at least two inches (four inches is better!) of ungrazed forage, soil erosion is minimal.