Any grazier worth his salt knows that grazing is a delicate tool – one that when done well can have tremendous benefits for land.
However, done improperly grazing and specifically overgrazing can have harmful effects on the environment, bringing about such things as increased weed pressure and erosion.
Last week I touched on grazing management as it pertains to riparian areas. This was mainly brought about by the frequent amount of time I've been spending on Montana rivers fly fishing lately. When I mention cattle and streams together, many a fisherman I know will say, "Cattle and trout streams don't mix!"
I beg to differ, however, as do several of my grazier compadres. A recent Facebook post on the topic brought about some interesting conversation between two grazing experts, Jim Gerrish and Jimmy LaBaume, and a good fly-fisherman friend of mine, Tony DiCiccio. I thought a few of the statements from this conversation worth sharing.
From DiCiccio’s perspective, that of the fly fisherman, cattle and trout streams do not mix. From his observations cattle trample stream banks, defecate in the water and cause siltation problems in streams – none of which contribute to healthy aquatic habitat for fish.
He has a point though. When left to their own devices cattle can be quite destructive. I've seen it myself. Trampled stream banks and muddy, dirty water are the typical scene. Environmental groups have built whole campaigns on the damage that cattle grazing can do to streams and riparian areas. For an example of what I'm talking about, read about Western Watershed's lawsuit announced in April to stop livestock grazing on the Little Lost River Watershed in central Idaho in an attempt to protect habitat for endangered bull trout.
The thing is, cattle are just cattle and only acting in their own self-interest. The health of a riparian area is of no concern to a cow, who just wants to fill her belly and then ruminate. The true culprit in this whole issue is the grazing manager.
"Keep the grazing period short and sweet and there is no problem with cattle and trout," grazing expert Jim Gerrish will tell you. "All the damage done to streams and riparian areas by cattle occurs because the cattle are there far too long." The keys to successful grazing of a riparian area are frequency (timing) and intensity.
LaBaume explained that a common myth in range management is that overgrazing is a function of animal numbers. However, this is not true.
"It is a function of time," he says. "Cattle are only a tool for improving range -- if you know how to do it."
So this brings me to my final conclusions.
There are certainly many grazing managers out there doing wonderful things for their land and showing tremendous improvements in both land health and productivity. Gerrish mentioned clients that have been able to increase carry capacity of their land from 40% to nearly 400% of original capacity by practicing better grazing of riparian areas. In part, they did it by development of additional water sites away from riparian areas. Doing this allowed for more even grazing distribution and gave the cattle incentive to spend less time near riparian areas. It's well known that water is one of the biggest limiting factors in any grazing program. Cattle are lazy and who can blame them. I wouldn't want to walk five miles for a drink every time I was thirsty.
There are also grazing managers NOT doing wonderful things for their land, especially their riparian areas, as my friend Tony DiCiccio and I have both noticed on many a fishing trip along the rivers we frequent. This tells me more effort needs to be made to educate land managers on the value of their riparian areas and why they need to graze them in short duration, much like the bison would have done before we raised fences across the plains.
As in every other sector of agriculture, increased awareness by the public and scrutiny of activist groups are increasing our need to be more transparent about our management practices. This includes how we manage our land. A good place to start would be our streams and riparian areas.
Like I said last week, our streams and riparian areas are the life blood of ranches and contribute to the environmental resiliency of the land. Responsible grazing of these areas is crucial to the sustainability of ranching.
It would be nice to hear a fly fisherman say, "We sure could use some cattle to improve this stream."