Wednesday, 17 June 2009

To Graze or not to Graze. Do Cattle Belong in Riparian Areas? In Some Cases, Yes, say Experts.

by Larry Powell

While mixed messages seem to be emerging about the wisdom of grazing cattle near rivers, streams and lakes, experts say, not so.

Courtesy of Water's Edge

Courtesy of the Upper Assiniboine
River Conservation District
Above - The pretty and the ugly sides of riparian management.
For years, the Government of Manitoba and Conservation Districts have promoted the idea of keeping livestock away from these so-called "riparian areas." Financial incentives, grants and even tax breaks have been offered to producers who keep their cattle away from shorelines.
The Lake of the Prairies Conservation District, (LPCD) for example, is now offering ranchers along waterways such as the Shell and Assiniboine Rivers, up to $5,000 each if they take certain steps. They'll be eligible for up to $3,000 if they install "offsite" (away from shorelines) watering systems and additional incentives for building fences to keep their livestock back, or repair areas already destabilized by cattle, such as cattle crossings and river banks.
The main purpose is to benefit water quality but it's hoped it will also encourage the preservation of natural vegetation for wildlife.
A recent series of workshops in the Roblin area may have seemed, on the surface, to be delivering quite a different message about riparian usage; that it is acceptable to graze and water cattle in natural waterways, as long as it is done properly.
It's called "riparian management."
A riparian specialist with the Alberta-based group, "Cows and Fish," Michael Gerrand, took at least a dozen people on a tour of such a place, on the Beasley cattle ranch north of Roblin near Boggy Creek on Tuesday. Those taking part did an inspection of an area along a lake where cattle had previously grazed and watered.
Gerrand told the group, "These areas are meant to be grazed."
After the inspection, he had the group do a step-by-step assessment of the impact of the practice on plants, shrubs, trees and shoreline there.
The conclusion - the area had been only lightly impacted.
And he advised the owners to graze cattle in that spot again to, among other things, ensure that invasive plant species are contained.
Another workshop in the area heard similar testimony later from a Manitoba group called "Managing the Water's Edge." It has published a brochure in which five Manitoba ranchers (including one along the Shell River) tell of favourable experiences in which they use natural shorelines to feed and water their herds.
They believe riparian areas not only offer them economic value, but can be managed without compromising their ecological integrity.
Eric Busch of the Lake of the Prairies Conservation District doesn't believe there is really any contradictory advice here at all.
Mr. Busch told Paths Less Travelled, "While it may seem that there are mixed messages coming out, I don’t think it takes a lot of investigation to realize that there aren’t. The main message that has never changed is that riparian areas are important, and that a degraded riparian area will have a negative effect on your watercourse. The rest of the discussion really comes down to how you want to ensure the health of your riparian area. Fence posts and barb wire are not environmental saving objects on their own, they never were. They are and will continue to be a tool that producers have the option of using for ensuring the condition of their riparian areas. The Cows and fish Workshop is saying that although fencing is a tool, it is not the best one. They are saying (and I tend to support this) that selective and carefully managed grazing is the best tool. You may then ask why we have a fencing program and not a selective grazing program. The answer is, you can’t purchase selective grazing techniques, they are learned and then applied at the producers discretion. Hence, grant programs for the tool that can be purchased, and education events such as the one you were at yesterday for the tools that cannot be purchased, only learned. We will continue to offer our fencing program until it is no longer a preferred tool for managing riparian areas while pursuing more educational events on grazing management. I suspect that where most of our producers are approaching retirement age grazing system changeover will not be prevalent and fencing will be more popular. As newer producers join the game we will likely see fencing decline."
Mr. Gerrand of "Cows and Fish" also discounts any suggestion that advice coming out on this issue has been contradictory.
"Regarding fencing there are no mixed messages. I think the CD's and anyone associated with govt grants would agree that riparian areas can be grazed and in most cases the overall riparian health can be be maintained and even improved with properly managed grazing (adhering to the four principles of range management; timing, distribution, effective rest and balancing stocking rate with available forage).
Fences are provided to producers to use as a distribution tool. In some situations fences can provide exclusion for a short period of time (2-3 years) in order to rest a recovering riparian area. But after the rest a skim graze would be beneficial (as we discussed on Tuesday).
In many cases fences do exclude cattle from riparian areas but often it is due to other reasons (for example preventing cattle from crossing the river to the neighbours place or drowning)."
Kelsey Dawn Beasley of the Beasley ranch, meanwhile, calls the Cows and Fish workshop there "A great learning experience. It is always a good thing when you are given more options & tools to utilize in ranch management."

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