Friday, July 19, 2024
HomePasture HealthForageSnow Retention Pasture Walk

Snow Retention Pasture Walk

Last week John Suscovich and Troy Bishopp talked about some of the benefits of Hedgerows. This week Troy shares his observations of some unplanned hedgerows and the benefits they provide.

Like Forrest Gump, “For no particular reason,” I went for a winter pasture walk and kept on walking…

This is a great example of what Troy calls “Linger Grazing.” It’s a strategy that has served him so well in learning how to improve his grazing management. Click to read more about it.

And for no particular reason, I started to look at snow, as frozen water, ready and willing to infiltrate, when warming arrives after this brutal cold snap. In areas of the country where water is lacking, capturing this white moisture is a critical element for the tap, for habitat, or for the future growing season.

It reminded me of an article that crossed my desk: Conservation corridors in the United States: Benefits and planning guidelines by A. C. Henry, Jr., D.A. Hosack, C. W. Johnson, D. Rol, and G. Bentrup. It stated: “The loss of biodiversity has become a national concern. Land use planners are increasingly advocating the use of conservation corridors, including riparian buffers, windbreaks/shelterbelts, filter strips, field borders, and grassed waterways to improve water quality and wildlife habitat.” So as I walked I considered what I was doing and could do better to combat biodiversity loss.

As I read my land, it was like seeing a sea of fluffy whorls culminating in snow-dunes wherever the wind stopped for a moment and dropped the life-giving blanket. For no particular reason, my thoughts were drawn to structure management and how my planned and unplanned hedgerows were functioning.

Even a little structure pays dividends.

The first ah-ha moment in snow retention is, even on large open fields, having beneficial grass residuals is important. My pastures can range from 10 inches of ungrazed area to an overgrazed field being prepped for frost seeding. Even at a respectable 6 inches, the snow-catching ability of my land is doubled. It would be nice if I could leave more but I’ve got cows to feed. BTW, this residual just so happens to be good for plant and soil health. I’m thinking (and it’s now being proven by science) it’s even more important than once thought as weather patterns get more unpredictable.

For no particular reason, we missed some fence subdivisions with the “residual management pruning machine” (our cows). These areas are certainly tempting for planting a full-blown hedgerow but our energy for planting trees is low right now. Instead, we have an old friend/foe/phosphorus extractor working in our favor: the resilient knapweed plant. It relishes these margins. And as you can see in the photo below, its upright florets and tough little trunks form mini snow-fences, sequestering an amazing amount of carbon and blowing snow, creating a magical igloo for critters and soil microbes. Think beaver den, or just unplanned hedgerows.

Before the snow, heifers nipping at the knapweed floret in a lazy man’s living fence.

Upon excavating the snow from under the weedy hedgerow, I found lots of activity. Earthworms were still harvesting and leaving their casting call. Mice were busy trampling laneways through the corridor, making nests, and chomping on stockpiled leaves. Even the occasional heifer busted into the drift to nip off a couple of nutrient dense florets. Based on my experience, it won’t be long before this corridor attracts the crows, hawks and foxes for a nice, iced snack.

This winter stroll brought me to my planned hedgerows planted with larch, locust, conifers, lilac and cranberry shrubs and contributing to snow retention and shelter for livestock. (Read more about them here.) As it grows, the snow collects farther into the field and the moisture slowly percolates into the ground. This consistently grows more cool season forage resulting in more grazing days.

Our planned hedgerow working well.

Turns out snow collection is also an important fertility improvement tool. In their report: Consequences of manipulated snow cover on soil gaseous emission and N retention in the growing season: a meta-analysis, researchers Joseph C. Blankinship and Stephen C. Hart found that “winter and summer biogeochemistry are intertwined, and decreasing snow cover generally reduces ecosystem nitrogen retention. Future changes in snow cover may impact global carbon and N biogeochemistry at the annual scale, likely driven by interactions between climate, latitude, and vegetation type.”

For no particular reason, I stopped at our farm’s thinking tree which overlooks our riparian corridor that traps many inches of snow in its lowlands. This corridor, a place deer bed down in the sedges and secret pockets of cattails, is the farms water filter, slowing the stream when it floods, and encouraging moisture to infiltrate the soil. Our pasture system from the highlands to the flood plain is a “wall to wall buffer” with portions all working as a whole. So to my neighbors who say they are afraid when it rains, I hope they see we are striving to reduce their stress by building a high quality infiltration system even in the winter.

Bishopp Farm thinking tree

Our management and practices are in stark contrast with what is actually happening in our watershed. I’ve seen over my career what the proliferation of Glyphosate and the notion of manicured pastures have done to our living snow fences. These small 3 foot wide opportunity corridors have been relegated to capped-over, moss covered, open sores with no production or environmental value.

This winter, take some time to consider your pastures’ snow collection systems as a way to once again address the grand idea of resiliency. Imagine with me a whole winter educational initiative with snow retention field days, live flake-landing research cameras, demonstration sites and measuring tools. Of course we’d have to add sledding parties, roaring fires, and lots of local food and drink to demonstrate what fun snow collection can be Why not?!

“And that’s all I have to say about that.”

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Troy Bishopp
Troy Bishopp
Troy Bishopp, aka “The Grass Whisperer” is a seasoned grazier and grasslands advocate who owns, manages and linger-grazes at Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, NY with his understanding wife, daughters, grandchildren and parents. Their certified organic custom grazing operation raise dairy heifers, grass-finished beef and backgrounds feeder cattle on 180 acres of owned and leased pastures. Troy also mentors farmers on holistic land management for the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition as their regional grazing specialist. This award-winning free-lance writer, essayist and photographer maintains a website presence at

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