This northeastern Alberta project is taking the long view in evaluating the impact of dormant-season grazing on wetlands

After five years, it looks like grazing wetlands after freeze up strikes a balance between maintaining functional wetlands and providing some economic benefit to cow-calf operations.

“The project will carry on for as long as possible with the objective of gathering as much information as we can to share with other producers to help them make management decisions on their own farms,” explains Delaney Anderson, rangeland agrologist with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development at Bonnyville.

The project is being run on the farm of beef producer Perry Phillips with assistance from the Lakeland Agricultural Research Association, Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society (Cows and Fish), and the county of Smoky Lake.

When Phillips purchased the farm near Vilna, the land surrounding the wetlands was used mainly for hay production. There was no evidence of cattle having been there in recent years. Economically he couldn’t afford to exclude these high-production areas from his grazing plan so his goal becane to maintain the vital wetlands near Bonnie Lake and still capture some value from the forages they contain.

That’s why he’s committed to this project. “Plant communities can change slowly over time or start to change very quickly. If I found out that grazing was affecting the wetlands or water quality downstream, then I could re-evaluate how I do things,” he says. “For me, grazing the wetlands doesn’t stand alone. It’s part of a larger plan that works on my place. There has to be some flexibility.”

The project

The project actually began in 2001, when three critical wetlands were fenced off and managed separately from upland pastures. The monitoring began in 2003, says Anderson, to investigate the impact of dormant-season grazing on plant productivity, plant species composition and riparian health. The first step was to take a comprehensive inventory of these three areas and mark out transects were changes could be followed through the years.

The three wetlands are similar in size and vegetation. One is ungrazed to serve as a control. The dormant season when the forages are grazed can be any time after freeze up in late fall to early spring when there is sufficient frost in the ground to minimize hoof impact. Snow load is the other factor that affects grazing times.

Anderson and Kelsey Spicer-Rawe with the Cows and Fish program clip and photograph the transects each year to record the production and do comprehensive surveys of the species composition and total vegetation once every five years watching for an changes in species composition or new weed invasions that would suggest the cows are selectively grazing particular plants.

“To date, there hasn’t been any significant change in the wetlands grazed during the dormant season in comparison to the control wetland,” Anderson says. “The cattle are not having a big impact on the grazed wetlands.”

What has become apparent so far is that the year-to-year variations in forage production in the wetlands are more related to weather than to grazing.

Forage is being stockpiled for the beef operation and the wetlands continue to function as they should to provide habitat for wildlife, store water and filter spring runoff from the nearby cottage development’s drainage ditch before it reaches the lake.

Fitting wetlands into the grazing system

Phillips says it’s difficult to determine the feed value of the forages in the wetlands because of the abundance and diversity of species. In 2007, three common wetland plants and two tame species were analyzed in early winter. The crude protein in the wetland plants ranged from four to 10 per cent.

Cattails had the lowest feed value and were the least palatable while the willows were the most nutritious and the cows’ first choice along with sedge and some of the native grasses. When the wetlands are the sole source of feed, Phillips sets out protein supplement blocks to ensure good utilization of the lower-quality feed.

Calving in June is an integral part of this new grazing sys-

tem. Late fall or early winter, when the wetlands are typically grazed, the cows are just entering the mid-gestation period and their nutrient requirements are their lowest. Depending upon the time of year, the calves may or may not be weaned.

In past winters the first snow loads were so heavy that the wetlands were used sporatically to supplement the hay he had to put out for the cows. “My strategy now is to use the best forage available whenever possible,” Phillips explains. “This year, I hadn’t run out of good-quality stockpiled forage before we got a lot of now, so the rotation in the wetlands didn’t happen.”

The region is prone to heavy snowfall and sometimes storms hit early. Forage that doesn’t get used in the fall and winter is still available in the spring before the new grass is ready.

Access to water is often a stumbling block in extensive winter grazing systems, particularly when snowfall is inadequate. When the cows are grazing the wetlands, they have access to a winterized watering bowl in a nearby pasture. A pasture well was established a number of years ago to allow better year-round utilization of forage supplies and distribution of nutrients during the winter feeding period.

As Phillips moved into a graze-only approach, he sowed the last of the cultivated land down to forages specifi cally for winter grazing. The landscape is rolling and the soil texture and moisture-holding capability varies, he explains. A base of creeping red fescue was seeded first then overseeded with species such as reed canary grass and timothy that are better adapted to wet soils. Native species are already showing up as the grazing system evolves.

The first winter, the stockpiled pastures were set up to be managed with temporary electric fencing, but, once again, nature took charge with heavy snowfall. When it pushed the fences down, he rolled them up and took a lesson from the cows.

When the snow gets deep, the herd moves on its own accord from the short grasses on high ground to graze the tall grasses in the low-lying areas. In the spring, when the low areas are under water, feed is still available on the high ground. Had the cows been forced to eat everything before being moved to the next paddock there wouldn’t have been as much accessible forage available in the low areas when it was most needed, nor would there have been as much remaining on the high ground for spring pasture. The electric fencing equipment has been put away and the cattle make more of the decisions.

“As farmers and ranchers, we tend to be focused on doing something, but sometimes I’ve over-managed,” Phillips says. “I have come to realize that whenever I push too hard against natural forces, it doesn’t work out, for me, the cattle or the resource. Sometimes doing less works pretty well.”

For tips about how manage wetland grazing during the dormant season in your program, contact contact Delaney Anderson, 780-826-8058 or Perry Phillips, 780-636-3366.

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