Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series on grazing management.
By Robert Waggener
Tourists making a summer trip past Western rangelands are greeted with a sea of purplish-red grasses. It’s an especially beautiful sight if the wind is blowing, as waves of color dance across the prairie.
But to ranchers, the purplish-red is costing them green — both in terms of desirable green plants and money. That purple-headed grass is a monster profit eater — cheatgrass.
Progressive operators, though, are using prescribed grazing to get the upper hand on cheatgrass and other weeds, while bolstering the population and health of native cool- and warm-season grasses, forbs and other desirable plants.
Studies conducted by researchers across the West and Midwest show that planned grazing can reduce cheatgrass populations and help prevent new seed if applied at the right time — and frequently enough — without injuring perennial grasses, according to Steve Young, a former faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s West Central Research and Extension Center.
That’s exactly what ranchers interviewed for this series are finding, including Justin and Riki Kremers, who raise cattle in eastern Wyoming near Lusk. That area is heavily infested with the winter annual grass downy brome, nicknamed “cheatgrass” because it cheats native plants of moisture and nutrients.
Cheatgrass is one of the first plants to green during the early spring; and for a short period of time, its forage quality is good. After that, however, the quality of this noxious weed is reduced significantly. It becomes a huge fire danger, and the plant’s hairy awns may injure the eyes and mouths of livestock and wildlife.
“If we have a pasture with patches of cheatgrass, we’ll move a large herd of cattle into that area in early spring,” Riki says. “For a short time, cheatgrass is really palatable, so the cattle eat it up.”
The cattle are allowed to intensively graze the cheatgrass when it’s green and before it goes to seed, which has led to a twofold benefit: The seedbank continues to fall, while areas are opening up for growth of native grasses and forbs.
Grazing and grass quality
“A decade ago, cheatgrass was choking out desirable plants; however, by intensively grazing these areas at the correct time, we’ve really changed the plant community. For example, we’ve seen a tremendous improvement in one of our most important cool-season grasses, western wheatgrass,” she says.
Justin adds: “We’ve seen a big shift in annual plants to more perennial plants. Among them are other cool-season grasses like needle and thread, crested wheatgrass and green needlegrass; and warm-season grasses including blue grama and buffalograss.”
The prescribed grazing continues as the Kremerses are careful to let both the cool- and warm-season grasses go to seed in designated pastures each year. Some pastures, including those without cheatgrass, remain ungrazed the entire year.
Grass resources have also been improved by allowing cattle to intensively graze pastures for short periods of time instead of the traditional season-long grazing.
“They take one bite — maybe a third to a half of the plant — and then move on,” Riki says. “We then give that pasture plenty of time to recover.”
Pasture monitoring is proving that cheatgrass populations are dropping, while the opposite is happening for desirable perennial grasses.
“Every pasture has a monitoring site, and we monitor every pasture once a year — typically in August and September, after the active growing season,” says Riki, noting that groundcover is identified at 1-foot intervals over a 100-foot line.
The Kremers have seen a whopping 80% reduction in cheatgrass since 2010, while the percentage of perennials has steadily climbed from 42% to 68%.
Carefully managed grazing has also led to a drastic reduction in bare ground over the same nine-year period: from 12% to 4%.
Keeping ground covered
This gets into the discussion of the all-important “solar panel,” or pasture, that grazing expert Jim Gerrish teaches at his Management-intensive Grazing Schools across the U.S. and Canada.
“When we assess our pastures, we need to be thinking in terms of what percentage of potential solar energy these pastures are capturing,” says Gerrish. He emphasizes that pastures covered with actively growing, desirable plants can double or triple forage productivity, compared to rangelands with a large amount of bare ground and weeds.
“The next time you take a walk on your ranch, look at a pasture and ask yourself, ‘How effectively am I capturing solar energy?’ That’s an important question to answer, because capturing solar energy is our primary business,” Gerrish asserts.
The Kremerses, who have a 10-year-old daughter and want to see their ranch succeed for generations, are now capturing more solar energy on their land. The time and timing of grazing are cutting down on weed problems, while the quantity and quality of perennial grasses and forbs continue to rise.
“When it comes to both cheatgrass and our desirable plant communities, it’s the timing of grazing,” Riki says. “And when it comes to those desirable plants, the amount of time the plants have to recover after grazing is huge.”
Justin adds: “We want to leave our ranch in better shape than what we found. By being able to increase our cattle herd by managing our native grasses better and cutting down on weeds, we are in essence buying a small ranch every few years — without having to pay for it.”
Waggener writes from Laramie, Wyo.