The restoration of degraded rangeland in the Channel Scablands of Eastern Washington was the focus of a 3-year project led by Dr. Kip Panter, USDA animal scientist, and funded by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant. SARE’s mission is to advance innovations that improve profitability, stewardship, and quality of life by investing in groundbreaking research and education.
The Channel Scablands include over 2,000 square miles extending from the area around Spokane west to the Columbia River near Vantage and southwest to the Snake River near Pasco. It is important for cattle grazing, wildlife habitat, hunting, tourism and farming. The invasion of annual grasses over the last century, first cheatgrass and then Medusahead rye, has significantly reduced forage production. This resulted in reduced cattle numbers, greater incidence of wildfires and an increased risk of grazing poisonous plants.
As the more desirable plants in the Channel Scablands were reduced by competition from the invasive plants, cattle turned to eating lupine, which causes Crooked Calf Syndrome (CCS). In one county in this area, 4,000 calves were affected with CCS in 1997. Many of these calves had to be destroyed and some ranchers lost their entire calf crop. That year was probably the worst for CCS in recent history.
The Channel Scablands were created at the end of the last Ice Age (14,000 to 20,000 years ago) by repeated catastrophic floods, as glaciers receded to the north and ice dams broke at the mouth of the ancient Lake Missoula. Great amounts of water were released over a few days, scouring the overlying topsoils from the landscape. This left the region suitable primarily for livestock grazing. Only small isolated areas were suitable for crop production.
For this study, ranchers and researchers partnered to look at ways to combat the invasive plants and add perennial forage plants that could be competitive with the troublesome annuals. The multi-year study was successful in introducing perennial grasses and forage kochia that compete well with the Medusahead. The group studied the use of targeted grazing, which helped to establish a sustainable seedbed in preparation for the seeding of the plants to be introduced. This was done with only minimal soil disturbance.
The most successful grass species were Hycrest II, Vavilov II, Sherman Big Bluegrass, and to a lesser extent, Western wheatgrass and Thickspike wheatgrass. Also, two different species of forage kochia were successfully established. The study showed that the seeded plants improved forage quantity, forage quality and reduced the impact of poisonous plants.
As a result of observations from the first year of the project, over 600 acres were seeded with the successful grass and forb mix. As the project moved into its third year, five different ranches had demonstration plots showing the benefits of the planting to restore those rangelands. Targeted grazing techniques were used to reduce the Medusahead’s thatch cover and help prepare the seedbed with only minimal mechanical disturbance prior to seeding.
Even though the initial project was completed in 2016, the project researchers will continue to monitor the long term suppression of the annual grass invaders and to evaluate the sustainability of the seeded species. Also, they want to quantify the economic impact of restoring this rangeland. This approach resulted in a 25 to 50 percent increase in forage production.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at email@example.com.