Protect the Water

A rancher shares tips on how to care for one very precious commodity and the land that’s near it.

By Becky Mills | Photos By Todd Meier

Dan Forsea

Dan Forsea

No matter your annual precipitation or what you’re raising, protecting water sources on your land is critical. However, when your yearly rainfall averages only 9 to 11 inches, as it does for rancher Dan Forsea, the task is all the more crucial. “We are pretty fortunate. We get a large runoff from the snowpack in the winter, and we have Eagle Creek and Powder River. On the range ground, we have the Snake River, and we have springs and groundwater.”

The Richland, Ore., cattleman needs all those water sources. His 650 Angus-Hereford cows depend on these sources for drinking water, both at his Eagle Valley headquarters in the winter and spread out over the 15,000 to 20,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management range they graze in the summer. In addition, he irrigates 400 to 450 acres of orchardgrass, timothy, clover and alfalfa hay.

Measures to Protect

As a result, Forsea does all he can to keep the springs, stream beds and riparian areas—the land bordering the creeks and rivers—in top-notch shape.

For starters, he depends on fences. “We try to fence off most of the creeks in the valley. If we do graze, we only keep the cattle in there for a short time. The fences keep the cattle where I want them, it makes them easier to manage, and it keeps the streambanks in [good] condition.”

The creek through his feedlot was probably the most in need of help. “The cattle made a mess. I was going to do the work on my own but the Natural Resources Conservation Service [NRCS] helped me with cost-share money. We fenced it out and put in four troughs. Now we have a good buffer. Even the feedlot is grassy. I could hay it if it wasn’t so rocky.”

Amanda Halawell, range and riparian specialist for the Alberta Riparian Management Society, likes the way Forsea thinks. “After cattle have grazed riparian areas, give the forage a sufficient period of rest to allow the plants to recover. Their root systems help resist erosion.”

She adds, “Avoid grazing in riparian areas at the times of the year when it is flooding. Here in Alberta, it is the springtime during snowmelt. The banks get saturated and are prone to erosion, and compaction inhibits the amount of vegetation growth.”

She also agrees with Forsea’s use of buffer areas between creeks and the areas he hays and/or grazes. “The buffer areas capture and slow down water so the surrounding land is more productive.” If most of a producer’s land is grazed, she says, hayfields can actually serve as the buffer.

Alternative Methods

Sometimes the streambanks do erode due to flooding.

Sometimes the streambanks do erode due to flooding.

On Forsea’s summer rangeland, it often isn’t practical to fence his cattle out of the creeks, so he gets creative. Since much of the land is too steep for even 4-wheelers to navigate, the 64-year-old rancher and his 90-year-old father pack salt in with their horses. “We put it on the ridges. It draws the cattle out of the riparian areas.”

Despite Forsea’s dedication, sometimes the streambanks do erode due to flooding and/or when the cottonwood trees lining the banks wash away. “When they turn over, they really tear up the bank,” he says. “If we can get by with it, we try to let Mother Nature take care of it, and we’ll use the root wad to anchor the tree. It will catch silt.

“I’ve done some streambank stabilization too. I’ll cut junipers or buck fir while they’re green and cable them in. They’ll catch sand and silt like a big old sponge.”

As part of his conservation work, Forsea develops springs to give his cattle an alternative water source. First, he digs down into the spring and makes a ditch. He lays 10-foot sections of perforated drain tile in the ditch to collect the water, covers the end in plastic and funnels it into a 4-inch pipe. Gravity pulls the water to a trough so his cattle can drink.

Other Benefits

Besides providing his cattle with clean drinking water and irrigation sources for his hay, Forsea says there are other benefits to protecting his water sources. “Where we have hayfields, we have a buffer between them and the creeks. It makes better wildlife habitat. We have pheasant, quail, chukar, mule deer and whitetail deer.” In the range country, bighorn sheep also make use of the water sources.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service pays me to let people hunt. We use the money for spring development and fencing.

“We never stopped people from hunting … I am one of the few who don’t close up their place. We were fortunate growing up to have places to hunt, and this way everybody can hunt.

“It makes you feel kinda good.”