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Cheatgrass firestorm in Nevada BLM Nevada
Firestorms in the West are usually caused by large fuel loads of cheatgrass.

Fall cheat grazing saves money and cuts fire danger

Grazing cheatgrass with livestock in the American West is proving its worth on public land.

Research and practical experience are showing cost-savings, fire reduction potential and forage improvement from late-season grazing to remove fuel loads on cheatgrass-dominated rangelands across millions of acres in the West.

A project in Oregon is furthering this cause. Cooperators include the University of Nevada, the Burns District Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, Oregon Beef Council, Harney County Court and Bill and Pat Wilber’s Drewsey Field Ranch in southeast Oregon.

This is vital work because in the past several decades fire has become the biggest threat to natural resources in western states, says Robert “Bob” Alverts, a consultant and part-time faculty member of the University of Nevada, Reno. Wildfires on this scale destroy wildlife habitat, timber resources and livestock forage.

Alverts also notes a map showing location of large fires since 1970 correlates with range adjudication, which is BLM-speak for the time when the agency started reducing cattle grazing on public land under the notion that this would improve rangeland health.

“Ungrazed forage becomes fuel. With excess fuel loads, fire burns hot enough to destroy perennial plants and the former grass/shrub plant community is replaced by invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass,” he says. “Fire-return intervals are shortened, fire burns more readily the next time, and range condition and fire danger keep getting worse, spiraling negatively.”

In contrast, he says there is not as much fire damage on properly-grazed range or well-managed forest.

“It’s all about plant density and fuel loads,” Alverts says. “Federal agency suppression costs are more than double the budgets for fuel reduction treatments. Reducing fire risk through active management practices such as late-season grazing and timber harvest is much less costly and can generate revenue for rural communities, providing economic livelihoods to ranchers, improved environmental conditions and essential food and fiber.”

Cheatgrass-dominated site in Oregon

This beginning picture on Upton Mountain in Oregon shows a dominance by cheatgrass and a nominal presence of crested wheatgrass, which once dominated the site.

The Drewsey Field Ranch BLM allotment is typical of public land like many ranchers operate. It’s a 14,000-acre allotment and the Wilbers have a permit for 330-550 or more cows. Given the large area, limited grazing period and small number of cows, it will take several years to fully change the plant community and effectively reduce cheatgrass dominance, Alverts says. But after eight years he says they are making progress and improving the land with planned grazing as a tool.

This fall cheatgrass grazing also saves the ranchers money because they don’t have to feed hay during those months of fall grazing. The cows graze 90 to 100 days, usually mid-October into January. The BLM authorizes late-season grazing on this allotment, but most BLM allotments don’t have provisions for fall grazing in their Allotment Management Plan. That means most ranchers are not allowed to graze their allotments in the fall, and millions of acres that could be treated for cheatgrass reduction are instead set up for firestorms.

Fall-grazed cheatgrass

A heavy fall grazing, not normally allowed by BLM rules, has stripped away the cheatgrasses, as well as some of the wheatgrasses.

“The plus with late-season grazing is that it doesn’t hurt the land or grass,” Alverts says. “All the forage is dormant at that period of use. This allows us to heavily graze annual plants like cheatgrass. At that time of year cows actually prefer these annuals over the rank, mature bunch grasses.”

By fall the sharp seeds have dropped off, and after fall rain the cheatgrass softens up. “We distribute protein supplement to attract cattle to various areas across the pasture,” Alverts says. “They crave the supplement and it enables them to digest the fiber (and they can eat a lot more grass) and makes them also crave the fiber. We keep moving the supplement around, and influence how the cows graze the cheatgrass. Over time the reduction in cheatgrass enables perennial grasses to come back and dominate plant communities in those areas.”

3 years grazing on cheatgrass

After just three years of fall grazing, crested wheatgrass again dominates the site and cheatgrass has declined dramatically.

Alverts says he has a similar project on the Roaring Springs Ranch in Oregon with ranch manager Stacy Davies. He adds, “It’s only a 1,400-acre pasture, but it’s private land so they can manage it the way they choose. They put 1,500 cows in there the first year (2012) to eat the cheatgrass. There was 2,000 pounds of cheatgrass per acre in that pasture. Cows were in that pasture for 60 days and grazed it off to a fuel load less than 100 pounds per acre,” he says.

“When we get below 200 pounds per acre, fire risk is significantly reduced, and likelihood of catastrophic fire is largely gone when fuel loads are under 100 pounds per acre. Now we are seeing shrubs come back, and perennial plant communities that are not as prone to catastrophic fire. We’ve slowly changed the plant community in a positive way,” Alverts says.

Alverts says this late-season grazing saves about $50 per head per month, and that cattle body condition scores are good with protein supplementation. The progress they are seeing in repairing the native plant communities is promising.

03207001D-cheatgrass.jpg

This picture of the fall forage before grazing compares nicely to the first picture, showing wheatgrass as the dominant species.

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