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Animal Health Notebook

Tall grass killed Custer

Tall grass killed Custer
The prairie tallgrasses in Custer's day were tremendously productive. They still could be.


You have likely already figured out that I am quite focused on growing grass and grazing cattle year around.

By late February, we still had a large standing haystack out in front of the girls and boys. Much of the C4 component had been "melting" since frost due to the moisture, warm temperatures, freezing and thawing, and lack of soil mineralization. We can grow large forage tonnage (biomass) in high moisture years but the quality is certainly not up to what with grow in a drier year. A mouthful of grass in the High Plains is better than half a belly-full of what we mostly grow.

Tallgrass love: C4 grasses like this Indiangrass and purple top were very productive, building herds of bison and other wild ungulates, and also the rich prairie soils.

Speaking of the Plains, back in 2011 I was blessed with the opportunity to visit and travel through parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota. We visited the Little Big Horn battlefield. A young lady who happened to be a Crow Indian spoke to groups several times daily about circumstances surrounding the fight. The battlefield was and still is on the Crow  Reservation. The Sioux and the Cheyenne had a good day and won big time.

The Crows had no use for the Sioux or the Cheyenne and many served as scouts for the U.S. cavalry. The Crow scouts knew that thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne were in the habit of leaving their own reservations in mid to late May to spend at least part of the summer huntin’. In 1875, the Indians had been ordered to stay on their reservations and all Indians not on their reservations were ordered to come in. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse didn’t seem to care for salted pork. They stayed out and a bunch of reservation Indians joined them in early June 1875.

They kicked the U.S. Cavalry’s butt on June 17 at Rosebud, Montana. Gen. George Crook had a bad day and Crazy Horse’s boys got the win. Eight days later in the late morning or early afternoon George A. Custer cashed in his and some 210 men’s chips forever. Crazy Horse was again a major player.

Custer had three medal-of-honor recipients with him including a couple of his brothers. Custer was experienced and knew how to fight but it didn’t last long. The greasy grass got him.

I asked the Crow Indian speaker if the ridge where Custer died was named Greasy Grass Ridge after the prairie grass "purple top." She said it was. I asked her how tall the grass was in late June in 1875. She said it was way up on the boots of the U.S. Cavalrymen mounted on 16- to 17-hand-tall, thoroughbred-cross horses. She said the Sioux and Cheyenne were on foot and in the grass.

Shortly after Custer ordered his men to dismount they were history. The Indians quickly surrounded the boys in blue and got their arrows nocked and fell them into the sweet spot. It was likely all over in a few minutes.

A Congressional hearing followed. No one wanted to admit that the United States had been defeated by a double handful of Indians. They never found otherwise.

The Indians were mostly back on the reservation in 30 days. The purple top grass is now mostly gone. However, it cost Custer his life and his hair. It was four feet tall on June 25, 1875, and few people seem to care that very little or none is there today.

Most people consider purple top to be the fourth member of the Big Four prairie grasses, following Big Bluestem, Indiangrass and Switchgrass as the most favorable of prairie grasses. Maybe 98% of the Big Four grasses are now gone, with all their productivity and suitability to the habitat.

We have made a mistake.

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