Fencing makes sense for farms and communities
Everyone has seen them. Riparian areas that should be lush and green, rich with vegetation and instead are sparse and dry with beaten down vegetation and questionable water quality.
When a pasture's riparian area is no longer healthy, there are various options that can be taken to restore it to its former vitality, bringing life to pastureland and health back to the water. Fencing is one option that is a simple and effective way to help even the most overused areas thrive. Here are two of many examples where Alberta producers are allowing natural vegetation to return in heavily grazed areas, and keeping the cattle out of sensitive water systems.
A pilot project in the Peace Region, coordinated by the Alberta Woodlot Extension Program, is working to restore vegetation to riparian areas after they have been fenced. Vegetation, including trees, is important for removing excess nutrients and sediment from surface runoff. In addition, vegetation shades the water body providing the best light and temperature conditions for fish, animals and aquatic plants.
In 2006, more than 1000 trees were planted on two farms, one near Nampa and one near Hythe. Both farms had fenced their riparian areas the year before because intensive grazing had stripped the riparian vegetation, affecting adjacent waterways. The change in appearance at both sites by the end of the summer was striking.
Prior to fencing, the first site near Nampa was in an extremely deteriorated state. There were no young trees or shrubs, there were no deeply rooted plants and there was an abundance of bare ground. "The stream bank was badly eroded and the sides of the waterway were slumping," says Doug Macaulay, a Woodlot / Agroforestry Specialist with the Woodlot Extension Program. "In essence there was no undergrowth and no regeneration.
"Trees and shrubs are the key species in restoring the health of riparian areas," says Macaulay. "They have a significant effect on the rest of the vegetation in the area. They have deeper roots and help filter nutrients from ground and surface water. In addition shrubs can't take hold without trees in many cases."
Sick cattle and a contaminated community-used water source were the reasons the site near Hythe was chosen. While the focus of the project was to improve vegetation, the ultimate goal was to improve water quality. The owners took the dramatic step of completely blocking off their cattle's access to the river using fencing, with no gates and no controlled grazing.
"We decided that it wasn't the best idea to run the cattle into the river," says Dan Cargill, owner of the cow-calf operation involved in the project. "Because the vegetation was gone, there was nothing in the riparian area to filter contaminants such as manure and crop nutrients to protect the water. The cattle were getting sick, the fish in the river were no longer healthy, and the town wasn't happy about drinking that water.
Cargill says that until these natural filters are restored, he's not even pumping from the river to water his cattle. "Our neighbours have also been fencing the river because we all want it cleaned up," he says. The river was in pretty bad shape but with the riparian area improving, the water is getting better. It would be nice to see this river come back to life for future generations."
Doug Macaulay says that many producers worry about losing the water source for their farms. However he says the risks of ignoring a failing riparian area are too great. He says many producers will set up offsite watering sources or they set aside a specific area which is gated for controlled access to the water, especially in the spring.
On the Prairies, riparian areas account for less than two percent of the total land base, but maintaining their health is crucial for grazing areas, shade and water. Closely managing these areas can take a great deal of time so that animals are grazing only at the appropriate time of year, the grazing periods are limited and the number of animals closely controlled. Limiting access with fencing is often a more practical option.
According to technical sources with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, some typical signs of riparian area degradation are:
The information on this website is available for reprint with credit to "The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan, www.albertaEFP.com".
Article development courtesy of The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan Company