Forest Grazing

 Knowledge Nuggets | Fact Sheets | Research Papers
Knowledge Nuggets
  • Forested rangelands make up a significant portion of lands used for livestock grazing in Western Canada.
  • Forests function and respond to grazing differently than native grasslands or tame pastures and need to be managed accordingly.
  • Successful management of forested rangelands is achieved through sustainable stocking rates, livestock distribution, avoiding grazing at vulnerable periods and providing effective rest after grazing.
  • Forested rangeland plant communities are characterized by a dominant overstory tree, such as aspen, pine, or white spruce and an understory of shrubs, forbs and grasses. The majority of forage livestock grazing comes from shrubs and forbs, rather than grasses.
  • The types and growth form of the overstory trees and the type and amount of shrubs and forbs in the understory determine the suitability of the plant community and the amount of forage available for livestock grazing.
  • Identifying plants on forested rangelands is important to estimating forage production for livestock, determining stocking rates and understanding livestock grazing behaviour.
  • Forage value describes the palatability and nutritive value of plants to livestock. Good forage value plants, such as low bush cranberry, red osier dogwood, showy aster, peavine and vetch are palatable and selectively grazed to the point that their growth form or occurrence is reduced. Fair forage value plants, such as aspen, rose, wolfwillow, fireweed and goldenrod are moderately palatable. Poor forage value include plants that are not palatable and often do not provide adequate nutrition and not available for livestock grazing. Examples of poor forage value plants are: beaked hazelnut, Canada buffaloberry, bracted honeysuckle, sarsaparilla, bunchberry, pink wintergreen and twinflower.
  • The shade of trees and cool soil results in slow growth in the spring. Forested rangelands are not ready for livestock grazing as early in the growing season as native grasslands or tame pasture. Forested rangelands in the Boreal and Lower Foothills Natural Subregions are best suited to mid June to late August grazing, when forage production and nutritive value are maximized. Forested rangelands in the Montane Natural Subregion along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains can be grazed mid June to late September.
  • If plants are grazed too early, their energy reserves are severely reduced which affects their overall health and ability to produce new growth. This affects the long term sustainability of the community.
  • The regrowth of shrubs and forbs is different from grasses. Shrub and forb growing points (buds) are elevated above the ground and occur at the tips of branches and therefore are removed when grazed. Some of the shrub growing points must be left after grazing to over winter and initiate new growth in the spring.
  • To maintain the health and vigor of the forested rangeland plants, and to account for the unpalatable plants that can occur in many forested rangeland plant communities, a rule of thumb is to graze only 25% of the total forage production. Leaving 75% of the total production helps:1) ensure growing points are left intact to sustain shrub and forb growth; 2) allows for the build-up of dead and decaying plant litter to build soil organic matter, facilitate nutrient and water cycling, protect soil from wind and water erosion and drastic temperature changes; and 3) provides for other land uses such as wildlife habitat, recreation, watershed protection and timber regeneration.
  • If left uncontrolled, livestock will graze some plants and some areas of the pastures more than others, making it necessary to control livestock distribution. The areas where livestock prefer to graze are called primary ranges. Secondary ranges are areas where livestock spend less time grazing even though these areas have forage. Tertiary range includes areas that are not readily grazed by livestock and can often be areas that are either inaccessible or that do not have forage.
  • When tame pastures are fenced together with forest plant communities, livestock spend more time grazing the tame pasture than the forest. The tame pasture area is therefore primary range and the forest is secondary range. The addition of a cross fence to create separate tame and forested pastures, allows the manager to graze each pasture in the proper season, with the proper utilization and provide the appropriate recovery time or effective rest after grazing.
  • One way to evaluate the health of your forest is to complete a forested range health assessment. Once you have evaluated the current status, you can adjust your management and then monitor to see what components of health are changing. One easy and effective method is to take photos to compare changes at a similar place and time each year.

Knowledge Nuggets adapted from Range Management Factsheet for Northern Alberta’s Boreal Region Forest Grazing Sustainable Resource Development, Government of Alberta.

Fact Sheets

Common Plants of the Western Rangelands - Volume 2: Trees and Shrubs
Evaluating Livestock Use of Boreal Grazing Lands - Benjamin Creek Project - available in PDF format only

Evaluating Livestock Use of Boreal Grazing Lands - Kimiwan Lake Project - available in PDF format only

Forest grazing: effects of cattle trampling and browsing on lodgepole pine plantations - available in PDF format only

Forest Grazing Hurts - available in PDF format only

Forest Grazing: Managing Your Land for Trees, Forage, and Livestock - available in PDF format only

Forest grazing - Principles of management

Grazing and Range Management

Grazing Forested Rangeland

Grazing Lease Stewardship Code of Practice

Guide to Common Northern Rangeland Plant Communities and Their Management - available in PDF format only

Northern Range Plants

Range Health

Range Management Factsheet for Northern Alberta's Boreal Region - Forest Grazing - available in PDF format only

Range Management Factsheet for Northern Alberta's Boreal Region - Indicators for Forest Rangeland Health - available in PDF format only

Recommended Grazing and Best Management Practices in Coniferous and Deciduous Cutblocks in Alberta - available in PDF format only

Research Papers

Aspen forest overstory relations to understory production - available in PDF format only

Effects of Cattle Grazing on Birds in Interior Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga Menziesii) Forests of British Columbia - available in PDF format only

Forest Grazing and Natural Regeneration in a Late Successional Broadleaved Community Forest in Bhutan

Forest Grazing: Past and Future

  For more information about the content of this document, contact Grant Lastiwka.
This document is maintained by Linda Hunt.
This information published to the web on January 29, 2013.
Last Reviewed/Revised on June 16, 2016.

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