Posted By: Jesse Williams
Watch & Share Penny Patton’s Sustainable Beef Story
As Penny Patton, Cattlemen’s Young Leader program graduate, puts it- our land is our place of doing business. We need to make sure it’s available for us to use in the future. Our land is our renewable resource in ranching, but the media often twists our story. So how does ranching make a POSITIVE impact on our environment? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can give you an insight into one project we have been doing on our ranch since we started in 2012.
Protecting our Riparian Habitat & Improving Our Water Sources
Our ranch is nestled in the Special Areas of Alberta. This unique municipality received their name in the 1930’s when a huge majority of settlers in the area packed up & abandoned their homesteads due to extreme drought and impossible farming conditions, forfeiting the brown soiled land back to the government. So if there is anybody that knows about the importance of water on the prairie, its Special Areas residents. So much in fact, that my hubs made water our primary business, drilling water wells, providing solar watering options and completing livestock watering systems to ranchers in our area.
To protect our water sources, the wildlife & riparian species that depend on them (including us!), we have been fencing off our riparian areas (areas next to lakes, wetlands, springs, sloughs, etc.) to limit access to livestock during ecologically sensitive periods. This helps to keep the banks strong and lush with many vegetation species and clean water sources for all those that access them. In turn, we have been using solar watering systems to pump the water out of the riparian areas into troughs nearby. The interesting part is that cattle seem to prefer to drink out of troughs than in riparian areas, because the water is cleaner & free from their own contamination. How cool is that!?
Above: Photos of the Whiskey Creek natural catch basins that the creek fills, September 2016
The Whiskey Creek
The benefits to protecting riparian areas are many. If you follow my social media accounts you may recall seeing a picture I posted this summer of the Whiskey Creek flooding (below). While I said above that we are typically very dry, we had an unusually wet year this year. Our tiny little creek flooded vastly outside its normal creek bed, but luckily because it was a relatively healthy riparian area, the water was captured by vegetation, soaked into our soils and not lost to run off. The varying types of vegetation with different root systems and depths allow for healthy soil, good infiltration and strong, stable banks. We were very happy to see our water stay in our pasture soil and recharge our aquifers than run off as waste!
Top: The Whiskey Creek flooding on August 3, 2016 after 20"+ of rain this year.
Bottom: The Whiskey Creek on September 30, 2016, dried up, which is typical for this time of year. It will fill up again next spring to fill natural catch basins that are full year round.
Whiskey Creek’ flows through, we keep cattle off until after freeze up. This gives us a great hard grass feed source in the fall before we have to start supplementing with bales, plus once the banks are frozen the cattle do a lot less damage to the banks, vegetation and riparian species. We take the cattle off of that native pasture before it thaws in the spring to ensure cattle aren’t mucking up the banks when they are at their most sensitive. This system works great in our pasture rotations plus it conserves our sensitive, ecologically significant riparian habitat. And the wildlife species that share this particular habitat are many.
Who can help you?
I think it’s important to remember however, that our riparian area management is forever evolving. This post is not meant to make people think we have it all figured out or that all the riparian areas at Whiskey Creek Ranch are 100% (they’re not). We are constantly working on improving our riparian management and sustainability, and decreasing our footprint. My favorite saying is “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” and I think that is essential in livestock production, including the ecological side of it.
Organizations like Cows & Fish are dedicated to helping ranchers meet the needs of their livestock operations while benefiting the ecosystem and in most cases, improving it beyond its natural state. Cows & Fish helped us come up with a list of considerations before fencing our riparian areas to ensure we were meeting the needs of all species, not just the cattle. There are also lots of local organizations to look into if you are interested. In my area we have the Chinook Applied Research Association (CARA) who has staff on hand to help with riparian area assessments for FREE! We have plans with them this fall to do a formal riparian health assessment on the Whiskey Creek, prior to completing our fencing, so stay tuned for blogs about our progress! CARA is part of ARECA- the Applied Research Extension Council of Alberta- and have partners across the province dedicated to the same type of work. Check them out!
As much as this post is about what we are doing on my ranch, I want to stress that we are not alone. Ranchers have been doing this for generations, but it is only recently that we have been talking about it as consumer concerns have escalated, watering technologies have evolved and ranchers are under more pressure to show their conservation efforts to the public. I also want to emphasize that this is just one tiny part of ranchers’ conservation and sustainability strategies that I am sharing today. If you are curious about what ranchers are doing, just ask! We love to talk about our land because as Penny said, it is our business, it is our renewable resource, it is our life. It is why most ranchers took up this occupation! And if you are a rancher reading this, I encourage you to share your sustainability stories. I know you have many! Why not take part in #AgMonth16 this October using the hashtag #OurFoodHasAStory? Or search it and see what others are doing. As the old 4-H adage goes “Learn to do by doing!”.
Interested in learning more? Caring for the Green Zone: Riparian Areas & Grazing Management is a great resource from Cows & Fish to start with! (PDF available)
This post is inspired by the Cattlemen's Young Leader Program as part of an advocacy challenge. Help me win that challenge (please!) by watching & sharing Penny’s video & you could help send me to the National Western Stock Show and NCBA-CYL/YCC Round Table in Denver!
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