Story and Photos by Dustin Boles and Lauren Neale
Originally published in the August 2023 issue of the Tennessee Cattle Business, published by the Tennessee Cattlemen's Association
Everything in the natural world is connected. From a small bug to a large mammal, every creature and every plant plays a role in ecological processes. For example, cattle that appear to be gracefully grazing the landscape can have a major impact on tiny crayfish nestled in rocks at the bottom of a nearby creek. Frank Warren of Cannon County, Tennessee recently demonstrated how making improvements to his commercial cattle operation led to conservation actions for the Brawleys Fork crayfish.
A Physician Assistant and primary care provider at Ascension St. Thomas in Rutherford County, Warren, along with his wife, Dr. Matha Warren, a small animal veterinarian, started their mostly Angus cowherd on an old dairy farm in 1999. He began to slowly make improvements and over the years, has turned it into a functional beef cattle operation. While the majority of his time is spent taking care of people, his other passion is to take care of their 60 mama cows, calves, and the land they use.
For Warren, winter livestock feeding has always come with challenges that include weather patterns, short days, and sometimes sick cattle. He would often find his cattle laying in animal waste and mud piled up around hay rings in pastures and some of his livestock would become sick, which resulted in mortality increases. Winter feeding also impacted the stream that flows through Warren’s farm.
Conservationists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), and Soil Conservation Districts were actively seeking ways to improve habitat conditions for the Brawleys Fork crayfish, which is currently being reviewed by the Service for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As conservation partners, they reached out to Warren and agreed to work together with a goal to benefit the cattle, the land, Brawleys Fork crayfish, and downstream habitats.
Understanding the needs of the Brawleys Fork crayfish, which is endemic to the Stones and Collins River systems, was crucial to designing a project that met mutual goals. As a small-bodied crayfish, they find protection by living in the clean gravel substrate. Upland habitat degradation allows streams to become inundated with sediment that fills the interstitial areas that are required for the Brawleys Fork crayfish to live. These impacts associated with agricultural production can have a major impact on the instream habitat availability for Brawleys Fork crayfish and many other aquatic organisms. As streambanks fail, cattle tromp through the creek, and riparian buffers are removed, increased amounts of sediment are pumped into the river with every rain.
Balancing these species needs with Warren’s desire to improve winter feeding was the next step. Warren’s winter hay feeding location would be relocated away from the stream into an area that allowed nutrients and sediment to filter. The project was completed in phases, which included the installation of two heavy-use-area concrete feeding pads, cross fencing, alternative water sources, and an access road. Improvements made during this project allow Warren to rotate his cattle more efficiently throughout the year. With the feeding pads, one on either side of the creek, Warren now has the option to move his herd across a stabilized creek crossing to reduce impacts from winter feeding or split his herd. The concrete feeding pads that were installed reduce the health impacts that deep mud and manure had on his cattle.
Dustin Boles, Acting State Coordinator for PFW stated, “Warren’s project was a great opportunity to cost-share and improve habitat for Brawleys Fork crayfish, while meeting landowner objectives. We expect this project to reduce sediment and nutrient enrichment downstream and hope that we can work with other producers to implement practices that are right for their needs while benefiting our aquatic species and habitats. These projects are successful because of the private landowners we work with. Together, we delivered a project to meet our mutual goals.”
The Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) program is a voluntary habitat restoration program solely focused on private lands habitat restoration. The goal of the PFW program is to improve habitat conditions on private lands by implementing practices that meet landowner’s objectives. Robby Cogburn, PFW Biologist stated, “In Tennessee, our rivers and streams represent some of the nation’s richest diversity in terms of aquatic species. Balancing the conservation of their habitats with sustainable livestock practices is our goal.”
Clark Hollis, TDA Watershed Coordinator, also supported the project and commented that “This type of project is good for all citizens of the State. Our goal at TDA is to improve water quality by reducing non-point source pollution. We all rely on clean water and projects like Warren’s are for the shared good, balance agriculture with conservation, and contribute to a healthier world.”
“I’ve always tried to be a good steward of God’s creation,” said Warren. “We need to leave the land in better shape than we find it. I will never have a star, purebred operation, but being able to feed people with beef and being a good land manager is satisfying.” Warren also stated, “This started out as a stranger driving up to my house, asking me if I would be interested in working with PFW to improve crayfish habitat. Not only did we end up doing this, but my cattle operation is in better shape with more efficient, safer feeding capabilities, healthier cattle and that initial visit turned into friendships with my conservation partners."
The question asked often is: “How does this affect me?” For the landowners, farmers, and residents of middle Tennessee, Brawleys Fork crayfish has a mutual need: clean water. The endemic Brawleys Fork crayfish occupies the East Fork of the Stones River watershed, which is also used as a drinking water supply for both the town of Woodbury and the city of Murfreesboro. Brawleys Fork crayfish is just another example of an indicator species, or a proverbial canary in the coal mine. If species like the Brawleys Fork crayfish disappear, then our waters are no longer clean and that has a direct impact on the health of Tennesseans.
If producers want to learn more about the goals of Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, please contact PFW Acting State Coordinator Dustin Boles at (931) 261-0117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.