A cow walks slowly through a grassy pasture toward a cool creek that meanders through green hills.
It may seem like an idyllic scene.
Yet for water quality experts, the access that cow has to drink from the water and cool itself presents a problem. They bemoan the lack of regulations farmers must follow to help protect streams and lakes in Northeast Georgia.
Meanwhile, many in the agricultural community are proud the industry lacks strict regulation and say farmers work to be good stewards of their land.
At issue is the amount of pollution that reaches the watershed, often in the form of livestock waste, fertilizer and sediment, which can raise the levels of harmful bacteria and nutrients in the water. There are no stream buffer limits nor rules on how much fertilizer a farmer can spread.
“I personally can drive 120 mph down Ga. 400, but I don’t believe you can, so I’m all in favor of speed limits,” said Robert Fuller, a professor at the University of North Georgia who has led testing on Lake Lanier and its tributaries for decades. “I know I’m not going to pollute the river, but you might, so personally, I think we have to have some pretty strong regulations, because human beings are human beings. An awful lot of very good, decent people just don’t realize the harm they’re doing.”
Despite the lack of rules, agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service recommend best practices to farmers. And the Department of Agriculture and other agencies like the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service work with farmers to help them follow conservation management plans.
Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black said many farms are linked by generations, particularly in North Georgia.
“They’ve been champions of stewardship long before it was a popular term,” he said.
Mike Haynes, one of those generational farmers, said most farmers do what they can. Haynes also serves on the Board of Supervisors for the Hall County Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Everybody here in Hall County, they want to do what’s right,” the North Hall farmer said while standing outside one of his chicken houses, where he raises 11,000 breeder hens and 1,100 roosters. “I don’t know of anybody that’s not trying.”
Still, levels of fecal coliform, which are bacteria found in the gut of warm-blooded animals, were relatively high in tributaries entering Lake Lanier’s northern end, according to data collected by UNG in 2014. The area is largely agricultural.
However, Bryan Barrett of the Natural Resources Conservation Service pointed out the area also has many homes with septic tanks.
Without expensive DNA testing it’s impossible to determine the bacteria’s source, he said. It could be cow, human, chicken or deer, since fecal coliform can come from any warm-blooded animal.
Pinpointing the problem is one of the obstacles of nonpoint pollution, which includes agricultural sources as well as pet waste, fertilizers spread by homeowners, septic tank failures and litter.
“Agriculture has been widely perhaps assumed at times, but also proven at other times, to be a contributor to nonpoint source pollution,” said Duncan Hughes, who has worked with Habersham County farmers to improve water quality. “But then so are urbanized areas, so are residential areas, the fertilizers and pesticides. The pet waste in urban areas are a very significant contributor to the bacteria loadings in streams. So it’s not at all an attempt to point the finger at agriculture and say they’re the only source.
“But they are a source. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
That difficulty in pinpointing the source of pollution, though, sometimes leads some farmers to hesitate in implementing recommended practices such as fencing off streams to limit cows’ access.
Hughes said targeted sampling shows higher fecal coliform numbers for areas of high-density livestock with direct access to streams.
Fuller, who said he has raised cattle, notes they’re more likely to relieve themselves in a stream, whereas deer or turkey typically do not.
“There was a time when I didn’t know any better,” he said. “My cattle would wander down, take a drink, and (a cow) might be pooping upstream.”
Jerry Truelove operates a dairy farm with his sister Dixie in North Hall. He said it’s been recommended they fence off their stream, but they haven’t.
“That takes a lot of land out that cows can eat on,” he said.
They have provided troughs for their cows, though, to encourage them to stay away from a creek.
Hughes noted there are even troughs that act like water fountains, providing fresh, cold water that cows may prefer to creek water.
The addition of water troughs may be all that’s needed, according to Barrett. Cows can get hoof rot when they spend too much time in a creek; if provided another option “they probably got more sense than we do — they’re going to go where they stay healthy,” he said.
When cows stay out of the water, Hughes said fecal coliform numbers drop.
The numbers don’t drop to zero, but it’s one source of pollution that can be somewhat controlled, and Hughes said he feels it’s important to have incentives for farmers to do what they can.
“If you can do something that’s better for the agricultural producer, for the property owner, that adds value to the operation and that also protects the environment, there’s no reason in the world we shouldn’t be incentivizing that kind of thing,” he said.
The NRCS reported 135 conservation plans in Hall County, which may work out to 22 percent of farms in Hall when compared with census data. Chris Groskreutz, spokesman for the NRCS, said sometimes multiple farms may have one conservation plan.
Multiple cost-sharing programs exist for farmers to implement solutions, though they can be competitive and farmers sometimes may not be able to afford their share of the cost.
Many of the recommendations center around preventing runoff.
One way is to add gravel to areas heavily used by livestock, such as feeding areas, to prevent sediment running into the stream.
The Trueloves also have certain grass planted in areas of their pasture to catch whatever may start washing away.
Haynes, a poultry and dairy farmer, has set up a series of lagoons where manure and sediment run. What’s in the lagoon is then tested for nutrients and spread on fields as fertilizer.
Black said those lagoons are inspected by the Department of Agriculture. Inspectors look at the health and capacity of the lagoon. How often they come depends on the size of the farm. They also work with the farmer on complying with his management plans.
Haynes said he has a nutrient management plan with the NRCS to help him spread the right amount of fertilizer. Nutrient management plans are included in the organization’s conservation plans.
In addition to the lagoons, Haynes uses litter produced in his hen houses.
Fertilizer is expensive, local farmers noted. Even if they’re not concerned about water quality, saving on the cost of fertilizer is motivation not to spread more than a pasture can absorb.
If they have more than they need, they may sell it. Chicken litter fetches a good price and is needed in South Georgia, according to Hall extension coordinator Michael Wheeler, who provides education and advice to farmers and other landowners.
In the meantime, chicken litter should be stored in a concrete stack house to prevent the nutrients from seeping into the land.
Haynes said he’s never had too much litter and usually has to buy some commercial fertilizer.
Preventing fertilizer from running off into the water is key for both water quality and economics.
Jerry Truelove said it’s in his best interest to keep his ground fertile and “grow as much nutrition for our cows here on the farm as we can grow. The only way you can do it is have fertile soil, not let the nutrition wash away.”
For row crop farmers, that means using a method in which they don’t till the soil. Instead, Barrett said farmers plant a cover crop like wheat or rye, and when it’s time to plant their main crop, the cover crop has either died or the farmer can lay it down and plant seeds. The increased organic material helps prevent the water from running off, carrying fertilizer with it.
Payton Edge, who plants row crops including corn, wheat, soybeans and sorghum on 150 acres in Clermont, said he does a lot of no-till planting and some conventional planting, depending on the condition of the field. Sometimes a field may need to be smoothed before the no-till practice can be used.
Before planting, he combines wheat and may cut the rest for hay. Sometimes he’ll spray to kill a crop, and the organic material is then left to die and infuse the soil with organic matter.
“The more organic matter we’ve got built up in the soil, the better your water quality,” he said.
He said his equipment then disturbs the land in a row just 3 inches wide, which reduces runoff. He has a plan with the NRCS that recommends he use no-till methods on certain fields on his property due to erosion concerns. If a field is on a hill, there’s little to do to prevent runoff.
The Trueloves also have been using the no-till method to plant feed for their cows when they can, and the price of diesel fuel has motivated them to do it more and more.
Black said environmental stewardship and sound business practices often line up.
Though water quality experts lamented that is not always the case, both they and the agriculture community agree pollution has multiple sources and takes multiple solutions.
“You have a very dynamic and growing watershed, and it’s going to take all of us working together to ensure the integrity of Georgia’s waters in these coming generations,” Black said.