Dealing with cheatgrass may be a headache for ranchers across the West, but the earlier they can get it under control, the more it will help improve their bottom line.
That is the conclusion of a new report by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, which estimates the cost of treating invasive grasses such as cheatgrass, medusahead and ventenata at varying levels of infestation.
Cheatgrass is a scourge on the landscape, and difficult to eradicate because of its short life cycle and high seed production. Once it becomes established, cheatgrass can outperform native vegetation, reduce forage and compound the risk of large rangeland fires.
A team of NRCS economists and rangeland specialists in central and Eastern Oregon worked together in 2017 to pin down the cost of treating invasive grasses at low, moderate and high levels of infestation. Not surprisingly, they found it makes the most financial sense to apply treatments early, before the problem becomes too widespread and pervasive.
“We have a lot of landowners who are interested in annual grass treatment, covering quite a few areas,” said Aaron Roth, rangeland management specialist for the NRCS in John Day, Ore. “If you can maintain those rangelands in really good conditions, you’re much better off than if you wait until you’ve got a monoculture.”
In some cases, the cost of waiting can be add up quickly.
For the study, researchers examined three levels of forage production — 500, 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of forage per acre. In all three cases, treating invasive grasses while infestation is still low produced an overall financial gain, from 21 cents to $4.94 per acre.
However, at high levels of infestation, those gains turned to financial losses ranging from $3.76 to $5.43 per acre. Treating invasive grasses at moderate levels of infestation only produced gains on the higher forage sites.
“It’s really hard to generalize across all of Eastern Oregon, but we did the best we could to try and show some of those trends and relationships,” Roth said.
NRCS economist Hal Gordon, who works for the agency in Portland, added those numbers are only the dollar figure costs for forage, and do not take into account the social and environmental damage caused by cheatgrass through loss of wildlife habitat and recreation.
“There are also lots of non-monetary benefits (of treatments) that we couldn’t put a dollar value on,” Gordon said.
Lars Santana, rangeland management specialist for the NRCS in the central Oregon city of Redmond, said there is plenty of ongoing research into new herbicides and treatment regimens for invasive grasses. But when it comes to timing, earlier is always better.
“There are so many different ways to treat annual grasses, with management as well as chemical treatments,” Santana said. “Get it early. Take care of the problem while it’s in its early stages, before it becomes a heavy infestation.”