The University of Arizona

Grazing effects on soil water in Alberta foothills fescue grasslands.

M.A. Naeth, D.S. Chanasyk

Abstract


Grazing can have a profound impact on soil water through its influence on infiltration via treading and on evapotranspiration through defoliation. Hydrologic changes in rangelands are most often associated with heavy grazing intensities although these changes do not increase linearly with grazing intensity. The objectives of this study were to quantify the impacts of grazing on the soil water regimes of sloped areas of the foothills fescue grasslands of Alberta. The study site was located at the Agriculture Canada Research Station at Stavely, Alberta. The effects of 2 grazing intensities (heavy = 2.4 AUM ha-1 and very heavy =4.8 AUM ha-1) for 2 grazing treatments (short duration = 1 week in mid-June and continuous grazing = May through October) were compared to an ungrazed control. The study was initiated in June 1988 and ended in April 1991. Surface soil water and soil water with depth were measured throughout each growing season using a neutron probe. Surface soil water (0 to 7.5 cm) across slope positions was lowest in the control and highest in the continuous very heavy treatments, but the trend in profile soil water (to 50 cm) was the opposite. Total profile soil water in the short duration very heavy treatment was greater than that in the continuous very heavy treatment, while soil water in the short duration heavy treatment was similar to that in the continuous heavy treatment. Vegetation at the study site was regularly water-stressed, as evidenced by soil water that was often below permanent wilting point, generally by mid-summer each year. Soil was near or below permanent wilting point in the autumn, regardless of its status throughout the growing season. Profile soil water was similar across treatments in autumn, indicating vegetation is using all available soil water. In contrast, soil water was generally near or above field capacity every spring, indicating the importance of snowmelt infiltration in these ecosystems. Only major (greater than 75 mm) summer rainstorms recharged soil water to field capacity. Thus it is concluded that maintenance of a vegetative cover that will trap snow for potential snowmelt infiltration is critical to soil water recharge of these ecosystems. Any grazing management regime that enhances litter accumulation and carryover should facilitate such snowmelt soil water recharge.

Keywords


groundwater recharge;grazing time;soil depth;evapotranspiration;controlled grazing;Alberta;slope;soil water content;grazing intensity;cattle;grazing

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