“During warmer weather, buffer zones around streams fulfill important functions as wildlife habitat, filter strips and grazing areas,” says Dirk Philipp, associate professor of animal science for the University of Arkansas. However, “During the colder times of the year, riparian areas
undergo changes that make them vulnerable to disturbance and traffic.” In winter, vegetation growth slows to a minimum, which means moisture isn’t taken up by plants, leaving buffer areas wetter. “Little or no growth of vegetation means there is little filtering being done,” Philipp said.
These areas remain important to wildlife year-round, however. The dormant vegetation and any surrounding evergreens, shrubs and understory plants serve as cover and can provide warmth for mammals and birds who may be attracted by fruits and nuts left from late summer and fall, as well as the water source itself.
Softer streambanks are more vulnerable to damage from hoofs. And since they’re saturated, those areas are also more prone to runoff, which can further accelerate damage.
With these changes occurring during the colder months, Philipp offers pointers on how to adjust a livestock operation to protect these sensitive areas:
Graze riparian areas until early September the latest to allow grasses to generate some biomass before the winter arrives. Higher canopies will slow runoff.
Provide alternative water sources for livestock to keep them away from vulnerable banks; switch to troughs placed away from riparian areas.
“Ideally, manage riparian areas in such a manner that cattle can graze during spring and summer there, but remain on pastures away from these riparian buffers during winter and early spring,” he said.
Winter is also a good time to overseed grass buffers with old, unused seed. “Old seeds may still have some good germination rates and can be broadcast cost-effectively,” he said. Overseeding should be done in October or between late February and the middle of March.
With a little forethought and care, crucial buffer zones between land and water can be maintained for the benefit of both livestock and wildlife.