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Fodder for Thought

Grazing Can Make Riparian Areas Better Or Worse

As in all grazing situations, the amount of time cattle graze and the length of recovery period are critical to good riparian management.


I have been spending a lot of time in and near rivers and streams this summer and have seen a lot of variation in the condition of the riparian areas.

Some of that time has been during visits to ranches which graze cattle in riparian areas, some of which include viable trout streams. Mostly it's been during one of the many trips I have made to rivers and streams here in southwest Montana to get my fly-fishing fix.

Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I floated with a friend on the Yellowstone River to do some fly fishing. During the float we spotted several cattle grazing close to or right beside the river within a 10-mile stretch that we traveled over the two days. At some locations, the cattle were fenced off from the banks. At others the animals could go right up to the bank and even drink from or stand in the river.

Some of the banks where livestock had access were grass-covered and had abundant shrubs such as willow present. These are what I'd call healthy riparian zones.

Some were not healthy, with steep cut-out banks and evident erosion issues from overuse.

All these observations got me thinking, "What is the right way to manage a riparian area?"

Riparian areas are commonly some of the most productive parts of any ranch and serve as a truly renewable resource if managed effectively.  They serve as a major source of water and shelter for both livestock and wildlife.  In many instances these waterways also serve to provide precious irrigation water for many hay and crop fields. Essentially, our streams and riparian areas are the life blood of ranches and contribute to the environmental resiliency.

Back in June, U.C. Davis study published a study in PLOS ONE which examined effects of livestock grazing on water quality in National Forests public land. The study was able to show it is possible for livestock grazing, public recreation and clean water to be compatible goals for public lands. However, the thing it left out was how we actually go about making this happen.

Luckily, there's plenty of great information out there about how exactly to go about this and in my search I found a great educational resource on That’s the website for the National Learning Center for Private Forest and Range Landowners. This site acts as an interactive, online educational resource; compiled by the both the USDA and by the Cooperative Extension Services of a long list of land grant institutions across the US.

In particular their course Stream and Riparian Area Management is a good overview of how exactly to develop a riparian-area management plan for your operation. In addition, a 2002 article from Graze,  "The ABCs of streambank grazing," will give you some interesting perspective about how different grazing management strategies can affect the health of streams and riparian zones.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to riparian area management and each type will require a different grazing approach. Tailoring the right program will require a complete inventory of resources to be managed, how to best use them, and the development of a good monitoring program to track progress made with your management. It's also important that the riparian area management plan be incorporated into the plan for the whole operation.

Overall, the two most important factors to consider when grazing any riparian area are season of use, meaning the time of year, and grazing intensity. No one season or intensity will be best for grazing in a riparian area. It will require an adaptive management strategy including such components as physical characteristics of a site, vegetation present, stage of plant growth, nature of biological communities and weather patterns. In addition, considerations for types and classes of animals should be made.

As can be seen in the Graze article pictures, significant differences can be seen in grazing a riparian area 2-3 times per month during the grazing season compared to more intensive grazing only 2-3 times throughout the entire season. The section grazed intensively for a short duration yields a greater amount of biodiversity and has an overall higher water quality.

This isn't to say that every stream and riparian area should be managed this way but it shows when grazed in a way that considers the individual resources being managed and how to best use them, it is possible for cattle and riparian areas to coexist on a healthy and productive level.

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