Cussing Over Creeks & Cattle

The sign of a truly sustainable farming technique, indeed of a sustainable idea in general, is its staying power. Something might not catch on widely at first, especially if it goes against conventional wisdom. But if it's just a tiny bit viable and enough innovators keep it alive, its time will eventually come.

I was reminded of this fact earlier this month at a Land Stewardship Project field day on Trout Run Creek in southeast Minnesota. In this case, the technique that has proven so resilient is one that on the face of it would seem about as counter-intuitive as it gets: using livestock to improve the health of streams and other waterways.

If you want to raise the blood pressure of an environmentalist, just mention the idea of allowing cattle access to a stream or river. There's good reason for this negative reaction— everyone has heard about or even seen firsthand what happens when cattle and other farm animals are allowed continuous, open access to waterways — stream banks become steep and eroded, manure and urine contaminate the water and the stream itself evolves into a chocolate-colored ribbon of murk.

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But it turns out that completely banishing livestock from stream banks may be taking things too far. In fact, it may actually harm the long-term health of those waterways.

This is not a new idea. Ralph Lentz was proving water and cattle can mix back in the 1990s on his Lake City area farm. Working with Larry Gates, who was then a watershed coordinator with the DNR, Lentz changed the mind of many a conservation expert by showing how the grazed portions of a stream on his farm were ecological gems compared to the scruffy ungrazed sections.

Lentz and Gates, after some pretty sharp disagreements, eventually started working together as a kind of "Stream Team." This influential effort was one of the many positive outcomes of the Monitoring Team, an innovative partnership of farmers, scientists and natural resource professionals that LSP coordinated almost two decades ago.

Like much of what came out of the Monitoring Team's work, the idea that livestock can be a positive force for water quality good has proven resilient, if not exactly mainstream. And as the recent field day in southeast Minnesota showed, it's now gaining some important supporters.

The field day featured a 3,000 foot stretch of Trout Run Creek, which runs through farmland owned by Earl and Judy Prigge near Chatfield. When the Prigges bought the land a decade ago, it was, frankly, a mess. The stream banks were sharp, steep and eroded, and even moderate rains sent flood waters raging. The Prigges spent those first few years dragging gas tanks and other pieces of junk out of the creek.

Eventually, Trout Unlimited, the Department of Natural Resources and various other groups and agencies pitched in and helped bring that particular stretch of stream back to life. The effort involved gentling the slopes of the banks, removing box elder trees and other invasive species and establishing grasses to stabilize the riparian area. Trout shelters were also provided.

As Jeff Hastings, Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, explained at the field day, part of the problem with going to all this trouble to bring a trout stream back to life is figuring out how to keep that revamped riparian corridor healthy years down the road. In other words, it takes active management to protect such a major investment in ecosystem restoration.

In this case, that management has come in the form of using the Prigges' grazing beef cattle. For the past few years, Earl and Judy have rotated cattle onto the stream banks for short—often just a day or two—spurts of flash grazing. This system helps stymie the invasive species, revitalizes soil-binding grass and keeps the stream banks gentle and sloping.

Such management has paid off—participants in the field day saw a stretch of water that would rival the finest trout stream. Hastings explained how this waterway is now home to the kinds of insects that are so important to brown trout and numerous other species. He predicts fish numbers will eventually triple here.

Trout Run looked good and it sounded good—it literally sparkled in the July sunlight.

"If we could do it, we'd like to have managed grazing of livestock on all our stream restoration projects," Hastings told me in an LSP Ear to the Ground podcast. He went on to explain that TU has recently launched an effort to actively promote manged stream bank grazing.

That's an important vote of confidence from an influential conservation group. It's a recognition that through close observation, flexibility and a willingness to look at the big picture, livestock can be used as a way to improve and maintain riparian health. It's also a recognition that in order for such a system to work, we need to support—via technical assistance, policy reforms and the marketplace—a type of diverse agricultural system that utilizes pastured livestock as part of the mix.

It was true back in the Stream Team's time, and it's true today. But as record amounts of grass go under the plow, the stakes are higher than ever.

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.