It’s a common enough sight to see in Minnesota: rolling pastures adjacent to lakes and rivers, with a herd of cattle or other livestock hanging out along the shoreline or in the water.
In many ways, it seems like an innocuous thing – cows need water and who wouldn’t want to hang out by water when they can? Still, allowing livestock to have free access along lakeshores and stream banks can have some pretty serious impacts on lake and river health (not to mention people health!).
Most obviously, allowing livestock to poop in or near water raises concerns about disease. Over 150 pathogens, including E. coli, can reside in cow manure and potentially lead to illness if the water is ingested. Manure also serves as a source for nutrients like phosphorus and ammonia, which can lead to the rise of green, smelly algal blooms that can make lake or river water toxic to fish, humans, pets, and other wildlife.
One other incredibly visual impact is the amount of shoreline erosion and disturbance caused by these animals. In the case of cows, you have animals that weigh between 900-1,500 lbs each mucking around a shoreline and climbing up and down banks with their large, sharp hooves. Sediment is easily picked up and suspended in the lake or river, reducing water clarity and potentially suffocating aquatic organisms.
Thankfully, the solution to minimizing these less than ideal impacts on lake and streams is relatively straightforward – you fence off pasture from the waterbody and provide an alternative water source for livestock. And indeed, livestock exclusion projects are gaining in popularity across the country.
One such project is one of the first funded projects by the recently formed Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership. Randy Hinze is a third generation farmer whose family farm resides near Pine City, Minnesota. The crop and dairy farm was established back in 1913, and over the past century, the farm has expanded to approximately 600 acres. It also includes approximately 750 feet of shoreline along 80-acre Rock Lake, whose water quality is currently listed as ‘eutrophic’ (impaired due to excess nutrients and reduced water clarity) by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Water Quality dashboard.
Historically, Randy has allowed his dairy cows to roam right up to the shore of Rock Lake, but in the process of becoming certified as a Minnesota Ag Water Quality Farm, Randy realized it was time to stop allowing the cows access to the lake. Plus, he realized he could also help further stabilize the shoreline and improve lake conditions by planting a 50-ft wide buffer strip of native plants between the lakeshore and his newly installed fence. The plants will grow deep roots to hold soil in place while also serving as habitat and a source of food for birds, bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.
“It just feels like the right thing to do,” he said.
Paul Swanson, district manager of the Pine Soil and Water Conservation District, agrees. “We see a lot of livestock accessing lakes and rivers in our area, and many times farmers just don’t realize the extent of the negative impacts it has on our natural resources. It’s great to partner with folks like Randy who are open to changing how they’ve operated for a long time. Even smaller projects like this, when added together with similar projects, can have some really big and measurable impacts.”
It is estimated that the Hinze cattle exclusion project will keep approximately 2 tons of sediment and 3.5 pounds of phosphorus per year from entering Rock Lake.