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Managing Cattle Grazing in Riparian Areas

Managing Cattle Grazing in Riparian Areas

John Erixson, Northwest Management, Inc.

The definition of a riparian area is the land that is adjacent to water bodies, seeps, and springs where excess water is sufficient to provide for a moister habitat than the surrounding flood plain. This applies to most areas around the creeks and streams that are found in our forest habitats. The question becomes “Can grazing on our forestland be done without negatively impacting the Riparian Zone?”

Because livestock grazing in the riparian zones is controversial to say the least, and past grazing practices have brought a fair amount of negative light to this subject, can we still graze these areas? Water quality, the major concern, can be maintained with managing the grazing within the riparian zones. Managing the livestock that rely upon the riparian area while maintaining the water quality is the key. Looking at what a riparian zones function is may be helpful.

A riparian zone is said to be in properly functioning when:

  1. The vegetation is controlling erosion through the stabilization of the stream bank, shading the stream to reduce water temperature, and filtering sediment;
  2. The vegetation has sufficient root structure to hold the stream banks;
  3. The vegetation has structural diversity.

While considering the functions of the riparian zone, here is a quick look at “Best Management Practices” for grazing within the area.

Managing the timing, frequency, and intensity of livestock use can greatly reduce the negative effects associated with grazing within a riparian zone. Limit the time of year when livestock are using these areas to avoid damage to vegetation and stream banks. Typically avoid grazing in the riparian zone during the early summer and late fall to help avoid stream bank degradation. Also limit the access to the water source especially during wet times of the year. Don’t let your livestock congregate around the surfaces of water. Do things to promote the animal distribution such as salting, fencing, etc. Avoiding high concentrations of feces and urine adjacent to the water source will help to maintain the water quality. If animals must congregate near a water source, leave buffer strips along the stream banks. Under light grazing, generally 15 to 20 foot strips are adequate to filter the nutrients and bacteria. A general rule is the steeper the site, the larger the buffer strip.

Contrary to popular belief, livestock grazing can actually promote the natural regeneration of desirable vegetation and improve overall water quality. Grazing during periods of sprouting can increase the density of vegetation. With the increase density of desirable plant species comes an increase in the use of nutrients left behind during grazing. Increase nutrient use by plants can reduce the overland flow of these nutrients. Grazing plants early in the season and allowing them to seed can lead to an increase number of these desirable plants. Keeping utilization down to less than 65% can help to maintain the vegetation and protect water quality. It is important to note that the percent utilization does vary for each plant species.

This list of guidelines is not all-inclusive, but does provide some generalities for grazing within the riparian zones. Each riparian zone is unique and requires a specific set of practices to maintain or improve its current condition. Implementing “Best Management Practices” can help avoid problems in the future.

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