All across the country, farmers and ranchers are facing tightening regulations and restrictions on grazing next to streams and water bodies. In his first article on this topic, Troy wondered if we, as graziers, are doing all we can to protect water quality and our grazing future. Last week he gave us three examples of ways that we can do the right thing without government intervention. Here are three more examples of how we can do better.
Right Timing and Right Sizing for Grazing a Pasture
This example is of a corridor that’s too wet in the spring but dries up in August. It’s been fenced bigger so it can actually be grazed efficiently and not impact the banks much. It’s an example of maybe a twice-a-year grazing because that’s some middle ground for the beef farmer I work with.
Grazing to Improve Tree Success
I worked with a farm in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that protected a stream with a 12-acre buffer corridor. However, we decided that the stream could benefit from more shade and a tree planting plan was developed. Because the farm was organic and had meat goats, we used the goats to clear the brush in advance of tree planting with their very minimal impact to the flood plain.
A very targeted approach yielded good results. Here is the tree-planting in progress after goat grazing.
As the trees develop the canopy, the goats could be used again to control invasive plants. Here you can see the portable fence set up off the buffer fence that allows them to manage goat grazing to provide ecosystem services next to the stream:
No Grazing Zones
There are times when a riparian area may not be suited for grazing or the goals are to truly keep animals out and improve the habitat with trees, shrubs and wildlife features to attract diversity to the landscape while improving water quality and filtration. That’s OK too, as one size does not have to fit all. It can be a beautiful thing to watch the transformation as it meets the goals of the landowner, like this example here of a riparian forest buffer in progress:
Why We Need To Do The Right Thing
Eliminating grazing from riparian areas doesn’t necessarily mean that a stream will be healthy, prevent erosion and protect water quality. Ralph Lentz discovered this when he split his stream management into three sections: A was grazed 2 to 3 days a month as part of the summer’s rotation; B was grazed hard once every two to three years to control vegetation, including trees; and C was planted to trees and not grazed at all. The result – Section C was shallow and muddy, and the best water, the most diverse vegetation, were in Sections A and B, with B housing the most fish. So removing grazing was not the answer on his Minnesota farm.
I’m experiencing some of what Ralph was interested in knowing more about. We have an area about 2 acres on our farm that has been buffered (no program) with a small stream running through it. There hasn’t been any animal impact in this mixed, overgrown orchard for over 20 years. We have a huge gully now down-cutting and heading upstream towards the spring area. This could become a problem for us all down the road if we can’t demonstrate that we can do the right thing, and regulations limit good grazing.
I will say that the massive rain events from Hurricane Sandy and Irene definitely impacted this area and areas where the cows graze, so it may not be fair to judge that no animals create erosion too. As a farmer and professional who advocates for wall to wall buffers, this situation is troubling because the land above mine is still all in sod albeit fallowed. Our solution? Start to put in check dams to slow the velocity and stabilize the soil with willows perhaps as best as we can, while opening up the canopy to grow more quality sod, and limited silvo-pasturing options when conditions are right. It’s certainly an intriguing experiment and an expensive one. But it’s important, because again, this is my grandchildren’s resource and I want to maintain and improve it for them.
These examples are just a microcosm of management strategies in and around riparian areas. All of them had features that were the personal preference of the landowner. And most didn’t involve government program payments but did involve management, the key to making it work. If you try, you really can choose the right way based on goals, planning, implementation and observation and leave your communities with improved water quality and a more regenerative farm.
Why aren’t we doing these things to protect our streams and water quality? Do you have examples of problems that you solved? Let’s share them with each other so we can all do the right thing.
Here in southwest Montana, our riparian areas are especially valuable, and particularly vulnerable. Promoting voluntary stewardship practices has become a focus for many. An article was recently published that shows how a project in the Madison Valley was a win-win for the producer and the stream. https://issuu.com/montanaoutdoors/docs/cowsandtrout?=28362516%252F59698845
There is a full documentary on youtube titled ‘leave it to beavers’. Some folks in western rangeland are bringing back beavers to combat drought and loss of riparian habit. I too have contemplated ‘log dams’ in wedded gullies but if you watch the documentary several times you will see it’s a little more complex according to beaver engineers. Enough of me typing….watch and enjoy the video!
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