Column: How blaming cows for the Bay’s woes could hurt us all

By Mike Massie
For the past several years the Rappahannock News has done a good job of reporting on what the newer farmers here are doing. I hope and expect the paper to continue doing this. However, I feel that the old-time farmers have not been heard from enough.

The main issue that concerns me is the threat of mandatory fencing of the creeks and streams against livestock, primarily cows. Cows are not the problem.

The actual view from from Massies Corner, looking west from the northeast corner of U.S. 522 and 211. Rappahannock News Staff Photo/Roger Piantadosi.

I do not have a Ph.D, or a Masters, or even a college degree, but I have spent most of my life with the cows on my farm. When the late John Marshall Clark, the undisputed king of cattle farming in Rappahannock County, was asked how long he had been in the cattle business, he replied: “Ever since I was big enough to chase after a cow.” The point being that we should listen to both educated and experienced people.

Why, then, are cows not the problem? When you compare the growth rate of humans to the growth rate of cows in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it is truly like comparing the Blue Ridge Mountains to a molehill.

Having said this, however, does not alleviate the fact that when the cows go and stand in the streams on a hot summer day (after all it’s just human nature), they sometimes do more in the streams than just stand. Sometimes they pass along bacteria and nutrients into the water. Nature has a way of dealing with this. The ultraviolet light from the sun can kill the bacteria, and the marshes and wetlands (in the tidal areas especially) can utilize the nutrients.

If nature can deal with the cows, the next question is: Then why is the bay in such a bad state? The answer lies in what has happened over the last 100 years or so to the tidal areas. In an effort to protect their property from erosion, homeowners in the tidal areas have bulkheaded their properties. The result is that now the geography consists of water and dry land. The loss of marshes is keeping nature from doing its job.

Instead of the government spending millions of dollars in Rappahannock County to fence the cows out of the creeks, the money should be spent restoring the marshes. If this were done, then not only would the relatively small amount of cattle nutrients be removed from the water, but also much of the human pollution as well. (If you are wondering what I know about tidal marshes, that’s a story for another day.)

By blaming the cows in Rappahannock County for the demise of the bay, we stand a good chance of losing the rural nature of the county. Many farmers will be forced to sell their cows, and at that point they will no longer be farmers but instead simply landowners. Farmers look at what they can raise on the land, and landowners sometimes look at what they can get for the land. What I think will happen is that the farms will become, at best, farmettes – or, even worse, subdivisions.

During my time as a public servant it was necessary that I become familiar with the county zoning ordinance. The reason Rappahannock County is rural is not the zoning ordinance; it is the cows. There may be some people in the county that do not care about cows one way or the other, but most everyone cares about whether or not Rappahannock is a rural county.

Our zoning ordinance – which is based on the underlying principle of support for agriculture and thus requires large lots and even larger by-right parcels – will come under attack. How can the Board of Supervisors tell a farmer that agriculture is in the public interest when the state and federal government are telling him that his cows are bad for the environment?

For most of my life, the farmers and environmentalists have worked hand-in-hand to achieve the same goal: open space. Farmers need open space for cows, and environmentalists like to look at open space. Now I fear it is the developers who will benefit from what the environmentalists want to do to the farmer.

I have spent my life trying to figure out the cattle business, and I have come to one inescapable conclusion: A cow knows more about raising a calf than I do; and that is why I try to let a cow be a cow.

About Staff/Contributed 5589 Articles
The Rappahannock News welcomes contributions from any and all members of the community. Email news and photos to or call us at 540-675-3338.