More producers work to protect riparian areas

An Alberta organization wants to show how better grazing management can improve landscape health and productivity

Riparian ecosystems are rebounding as fencing strategies and grazing management practices evolve, says a group that has been working toward that goal.

“I think producers have changed their practices a ton in the last 15 years, and that’s starting to really show in terms of their knowledge, management style and techniques that they’re applying — riparian fencing being one of those techniques that they’re using,” said Norine Ambrose, executive director of the Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society, more commonly known as Cows and Fish.

The organization’s goal is to foster a better understanding of how improvements in grazing and riparian management can enhance landscape health and productivity for the benefit of landowners, ranchers, communities and others who use it.

Ambrose said it’s a combination of advancements and affordability of technology, as well as producers’ knowledge and care for preserving riparian areas.

Tony Bruder, who ranches near Twin Butte, Alta., started changing the way he fences in 1995 after a “100-year flood” damaged much of his riparian land, particularly where his winter pen fences went into the creek.

“The creek completely changed course to where it was running. After that, we really got looking at what can we do to help repair this riparian area,” he said.

After consulting with Cows and Fish and Multiple Species At Risk (MULTISAR), Bruder started by keeping cattle off the creek for three years in an effort to let it and the riparian area reestablish and repair themselves.

Since then, he only pastures the cattle in the area during late summer and early fall, which allows the new trees to complete their growth period. This has made a big difference to the health of the riparian area.

“We’ve got trees in that area now. It’s filling back in with cottonwood, poplar as well as the creek side willow. It’s just coming back in so nice,” he said.

Ambrose said the increases in off-site watering choices are having a positive impact on riparian zones.

Lower-priced systems, some using solar and wind, allow water to be pumped away from rivers, streams and sloughs into a trough, which cattle seem to prefer.

“That has opened up way more management options and alternatives that were much more unlikely to be palatable or affordable in the past,” Ambrose said.

“Really, riparian areas were often the sacrifice areas because we didn’t have technology to get water elsewhere.”

Bruder waters all of his pastures with a couple of shallow wells. However, the creek is still used in fields where cattle are grazing the valley bottoms.

“We’ve got hillsides on both sides of the creek and in order to get to both sides the cows are going through the creek for some of our summer pastures,” he said.

Ambrose said riparian fencing can be set up to either prohibit cattle or manage access.

“Whether that’s for very limited or minimal use in high demand situations where you normally exclude them, but then you stockpile forage, for instance. You can use it when you really need to,” she said.

“It can also be a tool for just creating a better pasture management plan in general, which is really often what we would call a riparian pasture. So you’re fencing an area to create a pasture unit that’s more cohesive, rather than fencing off a quarter section ownership line, which is typically what we do in Western Canada.”

It’s been Bruder’s experience that light and timely grazing management is beneficial for riparian growth on several levels.

“If you don’t put any grazing on those areas at all, they become so overgrown that even the wildlife doesn’t want to be in it,” he said.

“We’ve learned you do need to go in and graze that off a little bit each year. Otherwise it just gets overgrown with grass. Even new trees can’t come up through it.”

Electric and other forms of flexible fencing are quickly becoming systems of choice because they are portable and temporary.

Fencing farther away from a riparian area is less expensive over the long term because it’s easier to manage with fewer corners, repair work and chance of flood damage.

“Have it far enough back so that it becomes a useful pasture unit,” Ambrose said.

“So using the vegetation soft soils and the water-loving plants is kind of that guide that’s going to be the outside edge of the riparian areas, so include that wide area and that makes it a useful area.”

Bruder uses electric fencing to keep out predators and permanent barbed wire for the rest.

However, he positions it well away from the creek so as not to have a repeat in case of flooding.

“You have to look at what the creek is doing. Really think about where am I going to put this fence that it’s going to stay. That might mean you’re going to fence off a little bit larger area than you initially planned. It’s hard to get your head wrapped around that because it’s a big change to your management, to your grazing pattern,” he said.

“It takes a lot of planning to do permanent riparian fencing.”

Ambrose said not having enough gates is a common mistake that producers make, especially in larger and more extensively managed operations.

“Have multiple gates in that fence,” she said.

“Because stuff gets in (and out) accidentally that you didn’t want in there. The cows, calves, and you need a way to get them out even if you’re not planning on letting them graze it.”

If grazing is an option, multiple gates will change the cattle’s pattern of behaviour and how much time they spend in different parts of the pasture.

Multiple gates also allow flexibility for situations such as drought, where more forage may be needed or there is occasional grazing every few years.

Bruder said he “learned the hard way” about not planning enough gates, particularly with his electric fences.

“It’s a long walk to a gate if you don’t have the them placed properly,” he said.

“That’s something you might not think about when you’re initially putting that fence in, but it doesn’t take long to figure out you screwed up.”

Added Ambrose: “Putting up something that’s smaller, less work and cost is sometimes a good option. It also helps you figure out (if) sometimes you’re not sure where it should be, if you got the right location that’s going to fit your management needs. And so putting in something that’s changeable is a good thing.”

However, she said fencing a riparian area is not a complete solution, nor is offsite watering.

“They’re all each just different management tools that should be looked at in the context of your overall grazing management principles,” she said.

The principles include:

  • providing adequate rest after grazing
  • using planned distribution of cattle
  • careful timing and avoiding vulnerable periods
  • balancing how much forage is used relative to how much an area can sustainably produce

Ambrose said that while there is room for improvement, producers are generally well aware and working hard on riparian management.

“It’s such an important part of their resource space. It’s highly productive because there is extra water there and more forage there, but it’s also more sensitive,” she said.

“I think in general it’s probably treated with a lot of care and attention, but there are always places that could be improved upon.”

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