Grazing research aims to control cheatgrass and fires it fuels
By Eric Mortenson
Come September, researchers will turn 600 to 800 cows out on private rangeland in Northern Nevada with the express hope they will mow down cheatgrass, the invasive weed that chokes out other plants in much of the West’s Great Basin.
If the experiment works — as previous projects suggest it will — ranchers, federal land and wildlife managers and rural communities will have found a valuable, multi-purpose tool.
Controlling cheatgrass could lessen the fuel load that make wildfires jump and run. Cattle could be used to graze firebreaks for rural communities or sage grouse habitat. Native plants spring back to life when cheatgrass is removed. Ranchers save money — perhaps $50 per cow per month — if they graze cattle on late season grass instead of feeding them hay.
In the wake of wildfires that have torched the West this summer, including the 400,000-acre Buzzard Complex fire in Southeast Oregon where cheatgrass grows thick, a lot of hope is riding on the research.
Lead researcher Barry Perryman, a rangeland professor at University of Nevada-Reno, said there’s no way to fireproof the dry western basins, but reducing the intensity of wildfires is the “first line of the issue.”
“Let’s say you have 300 pounds of dry cheatgrass per acre in September,” Perryman said. “If we remove 250, that leaves only 50 pounds left going into the next growing season — there won’t be as much carryover fuel.
“We can do that at the very least,” he said. “Just reducing the bloody fuels, that certainly can be done.”
Oregon cattle rancher Bill Wilber, who has taken part in preliminary cheatgrass grazing research, said his family operation lost 30 cows and its summer grazing allotment on BLM land was “obliterated” by the Buzzard Complex fire.
Wilber said cheatgrass and its “fuel mate,” medusahead grass, infest the area.
“You would be stunned by the amount of fuel,” he said. “The buildup is incredible.”
Late season grazing would “absolutely” reduce the fuel load, he said. “No doubt that’s the outcome.”
Previous research shows two-prong results, both of them good for producers. In projects from 2006-09, grazing reduced standing cheatgrass on University of Nevada-Reno test plots by 79, 80, 79 and 58 percent, respectively.
A followup study in 2012 and 2013, done in southeastern Oregon on BLM allotments, including Wilber’s, showed cattle could prosper on cheatgrass and medusahead during fall grazing. Fed a protein supplement in addition to the grass, cattle maintained body condition and gained weight. The study estimated ranchers could save $50 per head per month by not having to provide hay.
Cattle ranchers and range researchers have long believed increased grazing on BLM land would reduce the fuel load and result in less intense and less frequent wildfires.
“This is Old Testament stuff, using animals to manage vegetation,” said Bob Alverts, a retired BLM manager who works as a consultant on rangeland and other projects.
In a 1996 research paper, “Cheatgrass: The Invader that Won the West,” Idaho BLM rangeland ecologist Mike Pellant said Great Basin wildfires once occurred at intervals of 32 to 70 years. Now they return at five year intervals in southern Idaho rangeland infested with cheatgrass, Pellant reported.
“Fifty or 60 years ago, we didn’t have fires like this,” said Wilber, the Oregon rancher.
A 2014 research paper by a group that included Perryman, the Nevada professor, said federally mandated reductions in grazing over the past 40 years has been a “driver of cheatgrass dominance.” Grazing practices that foster the buildup of cheatgrass should be “critically re-evaluated,” the researchers said.
“Everything we’ve done has created more cheatgrass, that’s the direction the results are pointing to,” Perryman said.
So what’s the holdup?
Alverts, who worked in the Burns, Ore., BLM district where cheatgrass is common, said ranchers’ perception of the weed is part of the problem. It’s good forage in early spring, but dries out and produces seeds in two or three weeks. That makes it difficult to get enough animals on it quick enough to put much of a dent in it, Alverts said. Cheatgrass seeds are sharp and can injure cows’ gums and lips, so they avoid it for much of the summer.
But by September, when the seeds have dropped and perhaps a bit of rain has fallen, cheatgrass softens, he said. When supplemented with protein blocks, it becomes palletable and desireable fiber for cattle.
“They really go after it, it’s amazing to see it,” Alverts said. By feeding on it, cows reduce the duff that shelters the dropped seeds, and fewer seeds germinate the following spring. The treatment prompts the return of native grasses and shrubs, researchers say.
A second block to more widespread use of the technique lies in the nature of BLM grazing allotments. Some programs don’t allow fall grazing, and revising them opens them up for review and possible challenge by groups that oppose grazing.
Perryman said that’s why the research project in September will be done on the private TS Ranch, owned by the Elko Land and Livestock Co., itself a subsidiary of the Newmont Mining Corp., a gold mining company. No permits or public review will be required, he said.
Cattle will be moved on an area ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 acres. Among other things, researchers will see how far they can entice cattle from water, by placing protein supplement tubs progressively farther out. The rule of thumb is that cattle won’t move more than two or three miles from water during the summer, but in cooler fall weather probably will travel more.
“We’ll see how far we can stretch them out, and see what the potential is for grazing a firebreak,” Perryman said.
The tactic could be used to graze protective lines around rural communities that might find themselves in the path of a wildfire, or to keep fire from spreading into sage grouse habitat, he said.
Cows will graze on the cheatgrass for about 60 days, after which their weight and body condition will be compared to the start of the experiment.
The same goes for the cheatgrass.