Ask just about any Alberta farmer about the worst drought in recent memory and there’s a good chance they will say 2002 — a year that saw water supplies devastated throughout the province. For Sean McGrath, some foresight around land management that year prevented what could have been a disaster.
Fencing off a dugout and slough in a riparian area on his land and connecting them to a remote waterer freed up an extra three weeks’ worth of water for the Vermilion-area rancher.
“We’d read about using remote waterers and had done some research but we didn’t realize just what a difference it would make,” said McGrath.
Keeping his cattle out of dugouts also improved their health (he hasn’t had to treat them for foot rot since 2002) and the rate of gain has gone up by a quarter- to a half-pound a day because they’re drinking from a cleaner water source.
McGrath’s experience underscores some of the production and health benefits of riparian area management, but there are many more.
Riparian zones represent a powerful ecological cocktail, said Norine Ambrose with Cows and Fish, a non-governmental organization dedicated to educating landowners on riparian health and management.
In many cases, they act as flood insurance by retaining water in wet years and releasing moisture in drought conditions. They also play a role in reducing soil erosion as well as creating habitat and providing forage for wildlife.
It’s important to have a plan before fencing off a riparian area, said Ambrose.
“We try to get producers to think about why riparian management is important — the basic principles of their use,” she said. “You don’t want to wind up with an unmanageable mess on your hands because you didn’t do the proper planning.”
One key is fencing as wide as possible around the riparian area.
“You want to think about the whole flood plain of the riparian area,” said Ambrose. “Streams and rivers have a ‘meander belt’ where water may have once flowed and if it’s done so in the past, it may do so again.
“Because water flows faster on the outside bends of streams and rivers compared to the inside curves, the outside meanders tend to erode faster than inside curves and as the bank erodes, the channel moves across the flood plain, taking out fences that are too close. Try to recognize the meander belt as the natural path that the water could take and fence as much of the riparian area as possible.”
Fencing wide takes on new meaning when preparing a riparian area for grazing.
“You want to make it big enough to be a riparian pasture if you are going to graze it,” said Ambrose. “You don’t want it to be so narrow and close to the banks that the cows walk up and down one small area, trampling the plant life in the process.”
Plan for weed control
It’s a fact of life: part of managing any grassy area means dealing with weeds. Herbicides can be used in riparian areas but you have to be very careful, said Ambrose.
“Make sure you follow the label, minimize use, and stay away from the water — most herbicides are not allowed to be used within 30 metres of water.”
In some cases producers can let animals do the work of clearing weeds.
“Sheep are really effective at managing leafy spurge because they will actually eat it,” she said. “Some species — like tall buttercup for instance — aren’t really edible for most animals.”
Short of those two options, there are always hand pulling, mowing and other mechanical methods.
“We generally do not recommend having animals trample the weeds because it leads to bare soil, increased erosion and soil compaction which increases run-off and prevents the plants from filtering and trapping run-off.”
McGrath tries to take a proactive approach to weed maintenance.
“On the native pasture the best way to stop weeds is to not let them get started in the first place,” he said. “They’re there because of something we did, so we’ll take a look at it and try to change our management strategy so we’re not back to treating the symptom every year.
“Occasionally we will use herbicides, maybe on a tame pasture where we have an issue with thistle or something. We’re awfully careful because we don’t want to kill our legumes. Mowing and baling are probably the most common things we do to manage weeds. It’s always easier to work with nature. Nature’s pretty forgiving but if you try to fight it head on it’s a pretty merciless battle.”
Have a buffer
Cows and Fish generally does not recommend planting annual crops right up to the border of — or in — a riparian area, no matter how tempting it might be to take advantage of their moist soils.
“Cropping in riparian areas with annual crops is never going to lead to a healthy riparian area,” said Ambrose. “Riparian areas are very productive and often wide and flat, so they do make good crops sometimes. But there is a lot of flood risk when cropping in these areas and erosion risk to your land if you remove the deep-rooted native vegetation.”
Ambrose recommends a buffer of perennial coverage such as grass or hay between the riparian zone and cropland.
“Even though there’s some level of inconvenience involved in going around riparian areas, it’s become a lot easier with precision tool technology to avoid overlap and not waste inputs.”
Rotate and rest
Proper management is key when grazing cattle on riparian pasture.
“Make sure to provide adequate rest during the growing season and use good distribution techniques such as off-site waterers. Avoid grazing during sensitive periods,” said Ambrose. “For riparian areas that’s generally springtime when the soil is softer, most wet and most susceptible to physical compaction. That can happen after wet periods in the summer as well.”
Fencing areas off from cattle on a long-term basis or permanently has its advantages.
“More and more producers are simply fencing off with that non-use approach in mind because of the benefits of cleaner water; less foot rot; less animals lost to being caught in the mud and drowning; and better control of animal movement.”
Rotational grazing is key for McGrath.
“In the summer we use off-site water in lots of places and rotate regularly. That way even if the cattle are putting on pressure they’re sort of on and then gone for an extended period of time. In the wintertime, the cows are on snow so we’re not pressuring those riparian areas as much.”
Regular monitoring of cattle and grass is essential.
“We monitor cow condition closely to make sure they’re not under undue stress,” said McGrath. “I have a formal monitoring program using photo points. We use the Cows and Fish analysis process for our riparian zones just to see if we’re going forward or backward.”
Moving cattle often has other benefits.
“You’re paying attention to the cattle more because you’re with them more,” he said. “You’re paying more attention to your grass. I’d way rather spend two or three hours a day in the summer checking cows than six to eight hours a day feeding cows in the wintertime. It changes our feed source and drops our costs.”
Cows and Fish has delivered presentations, field days and workshops to over 50,000 people since 1992.
“Most of our workshops are on request,” said Ambrose. “We try to honour as many of the requests as we can — we just need lots of notice.”
Producers can get up to 70 per cent of their costs (to a maximum of $50,000) for fencing off riparian areas from Growing Forward 2. For more information, go to growingforward.alberta.ca. For additional resources, go to cowsandfish.org.