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Riparian Area Grazing Management

By Victoria Nameth, AAg.,  Agri-Environmental Specialist, Swift Current

February 2019

Taking the time to create a management strategy for our perennial grass stands can save a lot of time, effort, and stress during the grazing season. One aspect of this planning could involve thinking about how we manage riparian areas in pastures.

Riparian areas are transitional zones that exist between land and water environments. They can be found along waterbodies such as sloughs, lakes, streams, rivers or anywhere that water is abundant. Vegetation and soils in these areas are strongly influenced by the abundance of water, and therefore provide a unique habitat for biological diversity.

Riparian areas are an important part of the landscape in that they provide key ecological functions to an ecosystem. When riparian areas are functioning properly, they trap sediment, prevent erosion, filter and buffer runoff, and recharge ground water. These areas are also very biologically diverse and produce a high volume of vegetative production; up to three to 10 times as much forage as the surrounding upland areas. This provides an opportunity for grazing.

Livestock tend to gather around riparian areas due to the abundance of water, the presence of a source of food, and the potential of shelter. Sometimes these riparian areas can become degraded from overuse from livestock, and water quality can be affected from manure runoff. As a result, these areas are less resilient and have a harder time adapting to disturbances such as flooding or drought, and become less sustainable and less productive. However, when livestock are properly distributed and managed around riparian areas, these areas are better able to remain functional and can sustain the disturbance of grazing.

Managing riparian areas takes some planning, but the payoff is well worth the work. The first step is to consider these four range management principles:

  1. Balance livestock demand with available forage supply – be aware of carrying capacities to ensure healthy and vigorous vegetation is maintained.
  2. Rest – ensuring the area is rested allows the vegetation to recover both above ground (leaves and shoots) and below ground (roots) vegetation.
  3. Prevent grazing during susceptible periods – susceptible periods include when soils are saturated and vulnerable to compaction, and when vegetation is dormant.
  4. Manage for uniform distribution of livestock – this prevents livestock from overgrazing certain areas.

The next step is to decide how the riparian area is going to be managed. Fencing is a great option to control the use of these areas and there are a few different options that can be used. One option is to create a riparian pasture in which the pasture is exclusively composed of the riparian area. This pasture can then be incorporated into a rotational grazing system. A rest rotation grazing system is another viable option. In this rotational grazing system, one pasture unit (containing a riparian area) is rested for a full year and is utilized in the next year when a different pasture is being rested for the growing season. A deferred rotation system can be used as well. This involves resting pastures at different times in the year and then utilizing them differently the next year. While there are only a few options listed here, there are many other options that can be used to suit the specific needs of an operation.

The Ministry of Agriculture Farm Stewardship Program provides information and financial assistance for producers to implement beneficial management practices (BMPs) that enhance sustainability and resiliency in the sector. The Riparian Grazing Management BMP provides funding for the construction of fencing to manage riparian areas and natural water sources. For more information and eligibility requirements for the Riparian Grazing Management BMP, please visit the Farm Stewardship web page, or contact your local Agri-Environmental Specialist or the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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