In the early decades of agricultural settlement and cropl and expansion in Saskatchewan, rangelands were often seen as poorer quality lands suitable only for livestock grazing. Now native grasslands (Figure 1) are valued for their contribution to sustainable cattle production, their ecosystem services and biodiversity protection. Progress in range management, particularly since the 1990s, is a major success story in adaptation to climate change and will ensure good quality rangelands endure.
Native and seeded rangelands are an important part of Saskatchewan's prairie landscape. They total 7.1 million ha, comprised of both private and leased land, or roughly 27% of the province's total agricultural land base. Approximately 2.2 million ha of crown rangeland make up 40% of Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network (RAN) and protect native grassland ecosystems in the province. The native rangelands within the RAN include federal and provincial community pastures and agricultural crown lands designated under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.
Interest in improving range management increased in the 1990s with initiatives such as:
- Grazing and Pasture Technology Program,
- Prairie Conservation Action Plan,
- Native Prairie Appreciation Week, and,
- Rangeland studies and demonstrations, involving organizations such as the Saskatchewan Research Council and the University of Saskatchewan.
Native vegetation is likely to be more resilient than introduced forage species to the challenges of climate change, extreme weather events, and other stressors. Proper range management practices (i.e. avoiding overgrazing) help to maintain a good cover of litter (i.e. dead plant material) which in turn protects the soil surface against erosion and direct evaporation. This helps to maintain vigorous plants thus making the rangeland more resilient to drought. Proper management also helps to sustain the many rangeland benefits, including livestock grazing, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, habitat for wildlife, and recreational opportunities.
A well-designed range management plan is a valuable tool for sustaining animal production on rangeland while maintaining a healthy resource. Grazing plans balance the number of animals with available forage supplies, maintain a good distribution of animals over the range area, and rotate lands through alternating periods of grazing. An adequate rest period is needed after grazing to allow vegetation to recover before it is grazed again.
Beneficial range management practices (see: ForageBeef.ca) include, cross fencing, managing livestock access to water, monitoring range condition, and leaving enough late-season vegetative cover to protect soils and to sustain plant survival over winter.
A number of programs and associations have developed to assist and promote sound rangeland management and adaptation. Key contributors to good practice include:
Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association
The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) is a non-profit organization established in 1913, to represent the interests of the cattle industry in Saskatchewan. SSGA has partnered in a number of range management and conservation initiatives.
Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP)
PCAP brings together 31 groups including ranchers, researchers, educators, resource companies, and government agencies in a collaborative effort to protect and enhance native prairie across the province. PCAP activities have included educational programs such as the Cows, Fish, Cattle, Dogs and Kids game show, hosting Native Prairie Appreciation Week each year, and the designation of Needle-and-Thread grass as Saskatchewan's provincial grass emblem in 2001 (Figure 3).
Society for Range Management
The Northern Great Plains Section of the Society of Range Management promotes the proper care of rangeland resources including soil, plants, water and ecosystems, and the enhanced understanding of range resource management.
Saskatchewan Pastures Program
The Saskatchewan Pastures Program (SPP) has been in operation since 1922 with a primary focus of supporting livestock producers through the provision of summer grazing on Crown pasture lands. The program includes 54 pastures on a total land base of 339,000 hectares, 70% of which is native vegetation. A detailed pasture plan is completed for each pasture and includes an inventory of ecological heath and range condition.
Canada Pastures Program (formerly known as PFRA pastures)
Canada's Community Pasture Program (CCP) has operated since 1937 to rehabilitate and conserve severely eroded and drought-prone lands. The CPP's mission is to manage a productive, bio-diverse rangeland and to promote environmentally responsible land use. Community pastures represent some of the largest contiguous blocks of healthy native grasslands in Canada. Sixty-two pastures are located in Saskatchewan, covering 710,000 hectares. These rangelands are conserved using sound range management principles and grassroots community-based coordination for program delivery.
- Gosselin, W. (2011): Personal Communication.
- Government of Saskatchewan (n.d.): Saskatchewan Farm Land Use. Census StatFact, Census 2006.
- Office of the Provincieal Secretary (n.d.): Saskatchewan's Provincial Grass. Government of Saskatchewan. [accessed March 23, 2011]
- Saskatchewan Environment (2005): Representative Areas Network Progress Report 2005
- Thorpe, J. (2011): Personal Communication. Saskatchewan Research Council