A main concern for managers of rangelands, both public and private, is to protect the streams from damage by animals and humans.
More streams are being fenced off from the rest of the property than ever before. Whether the riparian area is fenced or not, the more important factor is how it is managed.
If livestock are totally excluded from the stream, the manager loses grazing as a tool in management. Grazing, used properly, is very effective in restoring downgraded range areas and stimulating ecosystem resilience.
When grazed properly and monitored, the forage plants and browse in riparian areas can be stimulated to regrow and be vigorous, helping to hold surface soil and provide healthy habitat for fish and wildlife. Plants are stimulated by the periodic removal of a portion of their stems and leaves.
This requires getting the animals in at the proper time and getting them out before plants are overgrazed. To do this successfully requires a higher level of management input, but pays off in terms of better ecosystem health.
The grazing process helps break up capped soil, stimulates the incorporation of plant tissue into the soil resulting in increased organic matter and adding minerals to the soil from dung and urine.
Grazing can also help control growth of woody plants that, over time, tend to shade out desirable grasses and forbs. These grasses and forbs can be effective in holding the soil on stream banks and filtering out soil particles during periods of high water.
Grazing is also an effective way to help in the control of undesirable plants, when they are grazed at an appropriate time in the plant’s life cycle to impede its recovery. So, fenced riparian corridors can be used favorably, if grazing is not eliminated from the manager’s toolbox.
Beth Burritt, livestock behavior specialist with Utah State University, reminds us that understanding and changing animal behavior offers a means to reduce the harmful effects of livestock spending too much time in riparian zones.
On rangelands where streams are not fenced, it is possible to change livestock behavior so that animals learn to spend only enough time there to drink before returning to higher ground away from the riparian zone.
Over time, this can be done with one or more riders. To be successful, the riders must be persistent and consistent. Also, there needs to be positive consequences for the livestock. Getting animals to stay in a different place works best when low-stress handling techniques are used.
It is important to take time to make sure that cows and calves are paired up before moving them and to keep social groups together during the move.
Otherwise, the moves can be much more stressful for both animals and riders. The timing of the moves needs to coincide with the animals’ normal routines in order to have the most success. Having good feed, available salt and water at the new site also helps to foster positive results when changing grazing patterns.
Livestock managers can play a major role in protecting waterways and improving riparian ecosystem health. The results can be healthier soil, enhanced wildlife habitat and greater forage production.
The key element to successful management is knowing what your actions are producing in terms of animal behavior and plant response. This means spending time to plan, to monitor and to adjust in order to keep plants vigorous and productive, while promoting the health of the riparian zone.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley, where he consults and writes on grazing management.