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Riparian Grazing: Can We Just Do The Right Thing?

With growing concerns over riparian management and its effect on water quality, farmers and ranchers are facing tightening regulations and restrictions on grazing next to streams and water bodies. Here, Troy wonders if we, as graziers, are doing all we can to protect water quality and our grazing future.

At this year’s Northeast Pasture Consortium meeting, Erik Hagen, USDA Agricultural Research Service Planning Project Coordinator, shared the results of a 4-year study of riparian grazing management. His conclusion was, “It’s fairly obvious that the field side of the buffer needs quality management of land cover for the whole ecosystem to function well. It’s been difficult to have a set program, given all the perspectives. Currently, regulations and policy are disengaged from reality.”

I can see those “perspectives” and regulations at work. In the highly regulated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) “pollution diet” areas of the Chesapeake Bay, and in the Northeast watersheds where I farm and work, farmers are under intense pressure to keep animals away from waterbodies, no matter what. Some states, like Vermont and Maryland, have actually mandated livestock stay out. The reason, according to many agency professionals, “We must put these practices in place for the mediocre manager.”

Wow! We need to protect our precious resources from ourselves?  If that’s the case, we need to spend more time looking in the mirror at how we’re treating our children’s future.

The thought that WE don’t know the difference between right and wrong or question the grey areas frustrates me to no end. We don’t know a totally obliterated streambank with animals laundering in the water all day is not right? We don’t know a subdivision’s worth of impervious surface mixed with lawn fertilizer dumping into a stream culvert is wrong? When we plow slopes for crop production without any inclusion of contours or sod backstops and soil becomes legacy sediment at the bottom of a dam, do we have any guilt?

Do we have the holistic goals or context to do the right thing?  Do we know what we don’t know? Who’s making the decisions:  The top-down DC regulator, the watershed modelers, people who loathe animals at the stream edge, local stakeholders and their communities, or people on the land?

Do you know how many millions of public and private dollars could be saved if we just managed our livestock better in riparian areas without the heavy presence of permanent fencing, water systems, and government programs? Imagine if you just managed with a roll of polywire and some step-in posts or a herding dog or maybe an invisible fence? Could we then use those dollars to cover health insurance, provide parity pricing for farmers, or help more veterans?

We don’t just live in a binary world.  Can there be consensus on our watersheds while still feeding a nation?  Can there be trust established between the public and thoughtful practitioners?

As a 4th generation farmer/Soil and Water Conservation District employee who is working for the 7th generation, I’d have to say, we have plenty of work to do.  If we don’t want our lives to be ruled by regulations meant for the lowest common denominator, we must all elevate our knowledge base and show that we can indeed be holistic riparian stewards with flexible strategies.

But what does that mean?

When I googled “cattle grazing in riparian areas”, I was rewarded with 682,000 entries.  Among the many discussions of the “right and wrong ways” of doing things, this quote caught my eye:  “Farmers use managed grazing practices to improve pasture productivity, increase livestock growth, and protect riparian areas (Lyons et al., 2000; Clark, 1998). Managed grazing encompasses a range of strategies but the most critical component is management, not uncontrolled grazing. If grazers actively manage livestock and limit the critical times that livestock are allowed to graze riparian areas, many detrimental effects can be minimized or eliminated.”

You mean we can manage our way out of our water quality issues? Cool!

I’m sorry if I seem a bit emotional and chippy. This has just felt so much more serious to me since losing my brother, who loved the water in multiple ways – from habitat to swimming. I draw hope from things like the conclusion of the Northeast Pasture Consortium meeting, where stakeholders all agreed we need to achieve a higher level of management through education. We need to learn from success stories on the land, educate agency folks in the field, try pilot projects with multiple, flexible strategies we can monitor scientifically and practically, and provide some wiggle room to transition into new alternatives without fear of reprisal from overzealous officials.

My mantra is and always has been: Teaching and inspiring practitioners to implement management strategies on their own, in their own locale is the cheapest form of conservation.  It’s also the most effective for the resources invested.  And we would show our love for all the children, yours and mine.

So let’s talk about this. Let’s inspire each other, as I hope to do with some thoughts in future articles on riparian grazing management.

“Like water, beliefs are fluid, they gather momentum, shift course, and filter out into new streams.”

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