Buffers can help maintain riparian zones
Buffers are on the minds of Western farmers and ranchers these days, but as some zone off their first riparian protection lands, there is little understanding on how to maintain the new barriers.
Syngenta and Delta FARM, a Southern conservation group, offer some suggestions that may help.
Manage the land to maintain and encourage shallow sheet flow and water infiltration. New techniques have been developed to address concentrated flow. For example, strategically positioned level spreaders, small berms or “water bars” constructed to redirect flow across buffers, and vegetative barriers located perpendicular to flow in order to direct flow and slow velocity.
Equipment traffic should be limited on buffers. Heavy machinery can compact soils and create ruts, reducing infiltration and encouraging concentrated flow.
Manage buffer vegetation communities. Natural successional processes tend toward hardwood-dominated plant communities. Early successional grass and broadleaf buffers must be managed periodically to maintain the intended plant community.
Vegetation that is growing is more biologically active, absorbing and degrading pesticides, and supplying carbon for microbial activity. Use native, local species to advantage. For example, native drought-resistant varieties should be considered for plantings in dry areas.
Where appropriate for the species mix, vegetation can be managed by mowing, implementing rotational grazing, disking and prescribed fire.
Get out the mower
Mowing provides weed control and can encourage some grass species to tiller and produce a more dense vegetation layer on the soil surface. Mowing too short can limit the ability of the vegetation to reduce flow.
Livestock grazing should be limited and used only under optimal soil conditions. Overgrazing can result in soil compaction, reduced grass levels, injured woody species, streambank degradation and direct water contamination.
Prescribed fire and light disking are management practice options when wildlife habitat is a desirable aim of buffering. Fire and disking are generally used to impede succession, maintain the native herbaceous community, and retain a desired level of bare ground for small mammals and ground-nesting birds.
In order to have some wildlife and pollinator-friendly habitat always present during buffer management, try to manage areas on a rotational basis whereby all the buffers are not treated entirely or exactly the same every year. This can result in some buffers being in different stages of plant growth than others. Caution should be used when managing vegetation in areas of high-erosion potential.
When using tillage equipment in fields, do not till too close to the buffer. Steep-sided buffers are more subject to degradation. Buffers are considered to be important tools for minimizing off-target pesticide movement via spray drift, water runoff or soil erosion. But pesticide management isn’t the only effect of buffers, since they can also help maintain the function and integrity of natural ecosystems by protecting soil and water quality and improving wildlife habitat.
Buffers influence the structure, composition and beauty of surrounding landscapes when used as part of a conservation management system.