Manage grazing use in riparian areas to prevent damage.
By: Rhonda Gildersleeve, Extension Grazing Specialist, University of Wisconsin
"Riparian" is derived from the Latin term riparius, which means "at the water’s edge" and refers to the narrow green zones of land adjacent to streams, rivers and other surface waters. Approximately 18% of Wisconsin land is classified as riparian, with unique soil properties and plant communities that provide a multitude of beneficial uses, including water storage, wildlife habitat, recreation and pasture forage.
While pasturing riparian areas is a common agricultural use, unmanaged grazing can result in degradation, impacting surface water quality and other uses. Fencing the riparian corridor to exclude livestock might seem like the simplest solution, but is not always practical. Proximity to water provides an opportunity for substantial forage production, but also creates management challenges, including periodic flooding, wet soils that compact easily, banks that are vulnerable to erosion and fencing issues. One successful management approach is to develop pasture units that include riparian resources as part of an overall grazing plan. Cattle can then be easily managed to minimize potential negative grazing impacts, and riparian conditions often improve through better vegetation management.
Grazing principles that are familiar to beef cattle producers can also be applied to riparian pastures. Seasonal timing of grazing considers soil and vegetation characteristics and livestock behaviors in riparian area protection. Controlling access during wet soil conditions prevents damage from compaction and erosion, and is critical most often from late winter through spring, and following heavy rains in other seasons.
Graze forages in a mid-late vegetative growth stage and leave at least 3 – 4 inches of residual dry matter (stubble) after grazing. Plants will recover quickly and the soil surface remains protected from erosion when vegetation cover remains after grazing. Identify grazing times that favor desired plants over weedy or invasive species. Resting riparian pastures during seed set of desired species can also maintain or improve riparian species composition.
Use short grazing periods coupled with adequate rest. Livestock will graze regrowth of palatable plants within 3 – 4 days, so move cattle often to decrease re-grazing of desirable riparian species. Use of temporary fencing to balance the grazing area offered to cattle numbers encourages more uniform grazing during short grazing periods, and is more effective than limiting livestock numbers but not the amount of time spent in riparian areas.
Develop improved watering sources and crossings to prevent bank damage and reduce water quality concerns. Beef cattle given access to clean water drink more and their exposure to water-borne diseases is reduced. Improve locations for water and crossing access so that cattle have firm footing underneath, but are not so comfortable that they linger in the water during warm weather. Access to shade away from the riparian area will also decrease loitering in or near surface waters. Local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and county conservation offices can provide technical guidance regarding location and installation of riparian fencing, improved crossings and water access points. Cost-sharing for these conservation practices may also be available.
Place salt, minerals, and supplement feeding areas away from the riparian zone since these are natural cattle congregation sites. Periodic movement of supplements also improves grazing distribution as cattle move toward the supplement site. Locate winter feeding areas well away from surface waters. Winter feeding typically concentrates cattle numbers and can result in excessive damage to both soil and vegetation, with increased soil erosion, nutrient/pathogen loading, and more surface runoff due to compaction.
Additional information on managing pastured riparian areas can be found at the Pastures and Forages page.