Natural Resource News
Submitted by Sunni Heikes-Knapton
Maximizing Snow Catch in Your Pasture or Rangelands
Adapted from Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension Range Management Field Specialist
The value of snow to your pasture and range management might not always be obvious, and for producers with year-round grazing objectives, deep snow can be a challenge. But during most years-and especially considering our unpredictable summers, it's fairly easy to make the argument for the value of holding on to that snow when you can.
The obvious benefit of snow is the potential for liquid water. Most sources equate roughly 10 inches of 'normal' snow to about 1 inch of liquid water. The value of this water is dependent on when, where, and how the snow falls. Early or late season wet snows with moderate temperatures tends to be more available for soil infiltration than do the dry snows in the depth of winter.
When considering the value of snow in pastures, the key component is managing the vegetation to be able to capture snow. To do this one must leave some residual cover/structure in the form of standing grass. The residual vegetation and associated 'duff' layer will improve capture of early snow, leading to the snow and vegetation forming a layer of insulation for the soils, roots, insects, and microbial life that continues to function below ground. Also, if captured, these early snows may add a bit of soil moisture, preventing the deep freezing that can occur in dryer soils which can stress root systems.
We are reminded of these points when trying to work in the various types of cover, for example attempting to drive a t-post. Areas that are heavily grazed or hayed in the fall have no grass to capture snow. These areas are barren and hard-froze and driving a t-post is difficult. Conversely, the areas with residual duff and grass had ample snow catch and the soils are noticeably softer, making driving the post much easier. These same areas will be more accepting of early spring melt water infiltration - a valuable asset to early season grass growth.
Aside from its insulation and plant growth benefits, maximizing your snow catch can pay dividends in pasture systems dependent on wetlands, dugouts, and dams for livestock water. How many pastures do we see where there has been an investment into the structure to hold water but little thought in regard to maximizing the potential for the water to make it the structure? Maximizing snow catch can add a significant amount of water to your livestock water systems.
Finally, snow can add to the overall health and diversity of life in the pasture. Small mammals, insects, and plant life benefit from the blanket snow forms. In turn, supporting this diversity adds to the health of the pasture. If you've utilized spurge beetles in your operation, you'll want to critically think about maximizing your ability to retain adequate snow cover in order to insulate your beetle larvae from deep penetrating cold. This type of management can leave more money in your pocket come June because you'll have ensured the best chance of survival of your beetle population and can limit or eliminate your spray costs.
It's too late to do much to improve your current snow catch for this year, but planning for snow catch now can help you determine when to move cattle off the range next year. If we stay dry next season, producers will need to consider the long-term impacts that their mid and late season grazing practices can have. Planning for snow catch can help you make the appropriate grazing decisions.
To learn more about overall water management and establishing grazing plans, contact the NRCS office in Sheridan (842-5741) or your local Conservation District office in Ennis (682-7289), Sheridan (842-5741) or Dillon (683-3802).