Can we graze stream corridors without damaging the environment?

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There has been much discussion over the past several years about whether livestock should be completely excluded from grazing along stream banks, partially excluded, or whether it makes a difference in the water quality.

The general goal for all of our pasture areas is to keep the pastures in a vegetative state with as few trips over the field as possible. If we consider the stability of our stream banks with the same concern we will find that the answer may differ depending on the soil types and steepness of the area around the stream.

For many of our pasture fields we rely on water from the streams for the livestock in at least some on our fields for at least part of the year.

If we focus our attention on making a stable place for the livestock to have access to this drinking water, they will often avoid the steeper areas where their foot traffic would cause erosion, as it costs them more energy to go up and down the hills as well as their footing being more unstable.

So, they will naturally go to the easier area to access where the water is often of higher quality because they have not stirred up the mud and they have not had to expend as muck energy to get there.

Grassy cover

If we watch the natural progression of a stream bank that is well managed, we will see that a grassy cover will offer protection from soil erosion and a stable root system that helps to hold the soil in place during the fluctuation of water levels throughout the year.

If livestock are allowed to overgraze these areas when the soils are wet or unstable we may see erosion taking place and serious bank erosion on areas where the forages are damaged and the root systems destroyed.

If, however, we control the timing when the livestock are allowed to access the stream banks and provide stable crossings where necessary, we will often find that the vegetation becomes thicker and is able to stabilize what was previously eroding stream banks.

Fencing stream banks

There have been many programs that encourage the fencing of stream banks for wildlife corridors, or what is believed to be a more stable cover such as trees.

Oftentimes, if we watch closely, we will see that what was a stable sod cover will be replaced by taller trees and broadleaf weeds, which offer little root protection to the soil and over time we may actually see the trees being washed out, or the wind may blow limbs out, or down total trees.

And then we see the stream rerouting itself around these obstructions sometimes at the cost of several feet of stream bank and large sections of the fence that was built to protect the stream and the aquatic life that benefit from the shaded streams.

If we consider a compromise where we strategically place the fence to protect critical slopes — but also move the fence back far enough from the bank that we can get in to control invasive species and remove overgrown and damaged trees — so that we can maintain both a good grassy cover as well as some shady areas — then perhaps we can have the best of both worlds.

Fewer problems

Also, by moving the fence back from the stream bank, we are less likely to have the fence taken out by floods or acting like a barrier that catches the debris during high water periods and causing further problems with the fence and the flow of water down the natural stream channel.

By planning ahead and designing the system to control when and where the livestock have access to the streams, we can protect the stream while also allowing the livestock to have access to water and to manage the vegetative growth for us.

We need to be observant of the weather and soil conditions and plan on grazing the most sensitive areas when the soils are relatively dry and stable. We need to exclude the livestock during periods when damage is likely to occur and/or provide stream crossings so that the livestock and farm machinery can cross the stream in designated areas where potential damage will be minimized.

In planning stream crossings you will need to consider the types of machinery that may be crossing the stream and cut the slopes back accordingly so that the machinery may enter and exit the stream without getting into a “pinch point” with the slope change or have a bank that is too steep to climb on one side or the other.

Some options are to include a section of the stream in each paddock so that the grazing is uniformly divided throughout the paddock. In some cases the stream may be an entirely separate paddock that is only accessed a few days a year.

In other cases, with proper planning a few areas of the stream may be utilized while the other areas are protected the majority of the year.

Each farm is different and often sections of the stream on the farm are different so there is no one perfect answer. Sometimes what we think is the right thing to do ends up causing more erosion, such as the downed tree that the water washes around because there is no other vegetation on the bank to protect it, than a properly planned and executed grazing system that keeps a grassy vegetation on the stream bank but limits when the livestock have access to it.

Careful observation

In any case, careful observation of the area around a stream is necessary and changes in management may be dictated as the weather changes. Having a large number of livestock in the stream in the wintertime when there is no vegetation to graze is likely to generate a pollution complaint and there is little defense on the farmers part when this occurs.

Protecting a grassy buffer area between a stream and winter feed lots can go a long ways in keeping manure and sediment from reaching the water and help to keep the valuable nutrients on your farm to increase your fertility rather than becoming a pollution problem downstream.

Nutrients are too valuable to lose through poor management decisions. Grazing the right place at the right time will allow the livestock to harvest and spread the nutrients and by managing their access to streams so that we can keep a healthy forage stand along our streams will enable us to avoid the negative impact of pollution entering the streams and the financial consequences of not only losing our valuable nutrients but also the possibility of receiving fines from a pollution abatement complaint.

If you need assistance in evaluating the best way to manage a pasture field with a stream running through it, contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or your local Soil and Water Conservation District, and ask for assistance in developing a grazing management plan.

As this picture clearly demonstrates, livestock can do a great job of spreading the manure where it can be recycled immediately back into the soil. By dividing the field into paddocks, the field will benefit even if you need to feed the cattle some supplemental hay.

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The author is an area grassland conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, located in the Licking County field office in Newark, Ohio; 740-670-5236.

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