by Troy Bishopp
Conjuring Forrest Gump; “For no particular reason,” I went for a winter pasture walk and kept on walking…
And for no particular reason, I started to look at snow, as frozen water, ready and willing to infiltrate, when warming arrives after this brutal cold snap. In areas of the country where water is lacking, capturing this white moisture is a critical element for the tap, habitat or the future growing season.
This journey was on the cusp of an article that crossed my desk: Conservation corridors in the United States: Benefits and planning guidelines by A. C. Henry, Jr., D.A. Hosack, C. W. Johnson, D. Rol, and G. Bentrup. It stated: “The loss of biodiversity has become a national concern. Land use planners are increasingly advocating the use of conservation corridors, including riparian buffers, windbreaks/shelterbelts, filter strips, field borders, and grassed waterways to improve water quality and wildlife habitat. Since many of the ecological functions of conservation corridors operate more efficiently at scales larger than an individual corridor, planning at the watershed scale offers the best opportunity to optimize these functions.”
For no particular reason, I started to question if I could do better while educating myself on my role as the steward for the next generation and becoming aware of my landscape as a net to capture the flakes of opportunity. As I read my land, it was like seeing a sea of fluffy whorls culminating in snow-dunes wherever the wind stopped for a moment and dropped out the life-giving blanket. For no particular reason, I was drawn to structure management and how my planned and unplanned hedgerows were functioning.
The first ah-ha moment in snow retention is, even on large open fields, having beneficial grass residuals. Mine can vary from a 10-inch refusal area to an overgrazed field being prepped for frost seeding. Even at a respectable 6 inches, this doubles the snow catching ability of my land. It would be nice if I could leave more but I’ve got cows to feed. BTW, this just so happens to be good for plant and soil health. I’m thinking, and it’s now being proven by science, it’s even more important than once thought as weather patterns get more unpredictable.
For no particular reason, we missed some fence subdivisions with the “residual management pruning machine.” These areas are certainly tempting for planting a full blown hedgerow but our vigor to break them up with trees is low right now. However, our old friend, foe and phosphorus extractor, the incomparable knapweed plant, relish these margins. With its upright florets and tough little trunks, it forms mini snow-fences, sequestering an amazing amount of carbon and blowing snow thereby creating a magical igloo for critters and soil microbes. Think beaver den.
Upon excavating the snow from under these rudimentary living structures, it was apparent that a lot of activity is going on. Earthworms were still harvesting and leaving their casting call. Mice were busy forming laneways throughout the corridor making nests and chomping on stockpiled leaves. Even the occasional heifer busted into the drift to nip off a couple of nutrient dense florets. Based on my experience, it won’t be long before this corridor attracts the crows, hawks and foxes for an iced snack.
This winter stroll brought me to my planned hedgerows of larch, locust, conifers, lilac and cranberry shrubs which are finally contributing to snow retention and shelter for livestock. As it grows, the snow collects farther into the field and slowly perks in the ground. This action consistently puts up increased cool season forage resulting in more grazing days, so it’s more profitable beyond the environmental benefit which has to be part of the regenerative narrative you’ve heard.
Turns out snow manipulation is also an important fertility improvement tool. In their report: Consequences of manipulated snow cover on soil gaseous emission and N retention in the growing season: a meta-analysis; Researchers Joseph C. Blankinship and Stephen C. Hart suggested that “winter and summer biogeochemistry are intertwined, and decreasing snow cover generally reduces ecosystem N retention. Future changes in snow cover may impact global carbon and N biogeochemistry at the annual scale, likely driven by interactions between climate, latitude, and vegetation type.”
For no particular reason, I stopped at our farm’s thinking tree which overlooks our riparian corridor and traps many inches of snow in its lowlands. Other than the deer bedding down in the sedges and secret pockets of cattails, it represents a filter, infiltrator and mitigator for an occasional, overzealous farm stream. Our pasture system from the highlands to the flood plain has been described as a “wall to wall buffer” with portions all working as a whole. Residents of my town say, “They are afraid when it rains.” Rest assured we are striving to help their stress by building a high quality infiltration system even in the winter.
Our management and practices are in stark contrast with what is actually happening in our watershed. I’ve seen over my career what the proliferation of Glyphosate and the notion of manicured pastures have done to our living fences. These small 3-foot wide opportunity corridors have been relegated to capped-over, moss covered, open sores with no production or environmental value. It’s a shame because the late Jerry Brunetti often referred and advocated for these diverse corridors as a potential “farmacy” if we manage them better.
I would argue it’s time we look at our land management strategies and snow collection systems as a way to once again address the grand idea of resiliency. I could see a whole winter educational initiative led by snow retention field days, live flake-landing research cameras, demonstration sites and measuring tools. Of course these activities would have to be coupled with buffer paint-ball competitions, sliding parties, roaring fires and lots of local food and drink to cement the message of environmental fun.
“And that’s all I have to say about that.”