Grazing cheatgrass-dominated rangelands offers change to reduce fuel loads
Stacy Davies, who manages Roaring Springs Ranch near French Glen, Ore. has been participating in a project with University of Nevada-Reno, working with range scientists to look at the impacts of fall grazing to control and manage cheatgrass.
“Our project here is similar to projects across Nevada. We graze cheatgrass during October and November, using protein supplements,” Davies explains. “This removes the buildup of dry cheatgrass that creates a thick litter, which makes ideal conditions for cheatgrass seedlings the next spring.”
The shade created at ground level is also disadvantageous for growth of perennials.
“When we get fall rain, cheatgrass grows again and produces green forage. If we graze in the fall, whether cheatgrass is green or dry, we remove the plant and kill the next year’s cheatgrass,” Davies adds. “Then, the next spring, perennial grasses get a chance to grow without competition from the cheatgrass.”
This process begins to tip the balance back toward more perennials and less cheatgrass.
“We have also effectively grazed cheatgrass in the spring,” says Davies, noting spring grazing works as long as producers monitor their grass. “As soon as the perennials start growing enough that the cattle start grazing the perennials, we have to get off that pasture.”
Typically, cheatgrass grows well ahead of perennials, he adds, so if the timing is right, producers can effectively graze cheatgrass and remove cattle before perennials begin to grow
“In the fall, it’s easier to manage the grazing because perennials are not trying to grow in the fall. They are dormant by then, and it doesn’t hurt them,” Davies explains.
He comments, “In the fall, we graze dry cheatgrass with dry cows. In the spring, we may be grazing new green cheatgrass with calving cows.”
“If we put them out there very early, we give them a protein supplement, and if it’s later, there is enough nutrition in the green cheatgrass – as long as there’s enough volume,” he stipulates. “As they eat the new grass, they also get some of the old dry grass from the year before.”
He adds, “The new grass gives them the nutrition they need, and the old, grass helps fill them up.”
Grazing strategies to control cheatgrass are often most effective on private land, according to Davies, who notes provide lands provide the flexibility to utilize the pastures as needed.
“We can manage grass according to biological readiness and function rather than by the calendar, as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) does,” Davies explains. “Too often on public lands the calendar dictates when we can turn cows out on pasture and when we have to move them.”
He emphasizes, “We try to graze when we are biologically driven, not calendar driven.”
In some regions, however, BLM managers are recognizing and accepting the value of fall grazing.
Advantages over herbicide
“There is an advantage to using grazing instead of herbicide to bring the balance back to perennials,” according to Davies, who adds, “By using grazing management instead of chemicals, we reduce the cheatgrass but don’t completely eliminate it, and the cheatgrass will out-compete other weeds that are worse, like medusahead.”
Grazing facilitates gradual change in the composition of rangeland species, rather than the radical change created when using herbicides, he says.
“In addition, we remove fine fuels with grazing and reduce fire frequency. All too often, once we get cheatgrass on a range, it burns every five or six years. But if we graze in the fall and remove the fine fuel and litter, this reduces fire frequency, and we can control the fires,” Davies comments.
When cheatgrass is removed, Davies also says fires aren’t as catastrophic. But when a cheatgrass plain burns, the first plants to repopulate the rangeland are cheatgrass and weeds, which creates a vicious cycle.
“All too often, public land agencies think the answer is to rest the pasture, but this just makes it worse,” he says. “On our private lands, we go right in and graze the cheatgrass off in the fall, giving perennials a chance to respond.”
“We’ve been able to change rangelands from annuals back to perennials,” he says.
“Here on our ranch, we started spring grazing cheatgrass areas 22 years ago. We’ve only been doing the fall grazing to remove cheatgrass for the last six years. We have seen good results,” Davies says.
Sage grouse populations make cheatgrass a bigger threat.
“The biggest threat to sage grouse is wildfires and conversion of rangelands to annual grasses. The more things we can do to prevent the fire, the better. Grazing is a crucial piece of the management. We need to remove enough of the grass that we don’t get those big fires,” he says.
For example, on his ranch, Davies notes that 2012 grazing reduced fine fuels to a level that mean no fire touched their ranch. Immediately north of the ranch, however, the Homestead Fire burned 300,000 acres, and to the east, the Longdraw Fire burned more than 1 million acres.
“On our private land, we were able to concentrate grazing in the risky areas,” he explains. “We thoroughly grazed the lower elevation lands to remove cheatgrass and other fine fuels in the sagebrush areas and eliminated the fire danger. When the lightning storms came, we had some strikes but no fires.”
Davies emphasizes, “The key to cheatgrass management is first to keep it from coming into the pastures, but once we have it, early spring and late fall grazing can be beneficial in reducing it and favoring the perennials.”
Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.