ELKO - A new University of Nevada, Reno study shows fall and winter grazing can reduce cheatgrass, which in turn could slow range fires and save ranchers money.
This study puts to rest theories that cheatgrass was only good for spring grazing, that cows won't eat dry cheatgrass and that dry cheatgrass had no nutritional value for livestock, according to Jerry Smith, district manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Battle Mountain District.
"Now, an experiment by University of Nevada scientists Dr. Barry Perryman and Dr. Ben Bruce dispels these theories," he said.
"Dr. Perryman, who is a member of the BLM's Northeastern Resource Advisory Council, demonstrated that cheatgrass can be significantly reduced with the use of fall grazing," Smith said.
UNR funded the study, but "we are excited about the findings and are helping publicize the results," said Schirete Zick, public affairs officer for the Battle Mountain BLM district.
"The results clearly demonstrate that cheatgrass can be significantly reduced with the aid of fall grazing," she said.
"Cheatgrass presents a hazard from two perspectives," Smith said in the BLM's announcement on the study. "It comes up earlier than most perennial grasses, stealing resources like water and nutrients needed by other grasses, which provide forage for wildlife. Secondly, once cheatgrass dries, it is highly flammable and becomes a fire hazard.
"According to our records, during the last four years nearly 4 million acres burned in Nevada," said Smith.
"Cheatgrass was a contributing factor to large fire growth in 85 percent of these fires. Furthermore, cheatgrass invades burned areas," he said.
"For example, a single stalk of cheatgrass can produce 1,000 seeds, and a single acre may contain hundreds of thousands of these plants. The BLM estimates that cheatgrass invades 4,000 acres a day," Smith said.
Acting on the research will require "a buy-in from the ranching community for it to be a win-win situation for everyone involved," Zick said.
Dan Gralian, general manager of Newmont Mining Corp.'s Elko Land and Livestock, said he also sees the potential for a win-win project, based on what he understands about the study.
"My interpretation is that cheatgrass can be used as a winter fuel, along with protein supplements. Dry winter cheatgrass doesn't have enough nutrients to feed a cow," he said.
Grazing cattle on cheatgrass in the fall and winter can open a whole new window, but he would like to see the BLM agree not to count winter cheatgrass grazing against a ranch's AUMs (animal unit months) for a grazing allotment.
"It would be bonus feed. It's going to help reduce cheatgrass and fires," Gralian said.
Ranchers also could save money if cattle graze on cheatgrass, he said.
"It costs about 40 to 50 cents a day to provide protein supplement. If we feed them hay, it costs $1.50 a day," Gralian said.
Doug Furtado, field manager for the BLM's Mount Lewis Field Office, said effective grazing of cheatgrass must be supported by the appropriate level of livestock management.
"Successful grazing to reduce cheatgrass must be well planned, targeted to manageable areas and supported by the permittee and the BLM in order to ensure that the appropriate control of livestock exists to meet the desired outcomes," he said in the BLM announcement.
"I think it's great the university has approached the issue not only as beneficial to the livestock industry but to help the BLM, as well," Meghan Brown, executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen's Association, said Friday.
She said she is pleased to see the data that backs up a management solution to an ecological problem.
"I certainly hope the BLM and other offices in the West that deal with invasive weed issues will also implement this technique," Brown said.
Perryman, an associate professor of rangeland ecology, and Bruce, an associate professor of rangeland animal nutrition, conducted the experiment between 2006 and 2009 at the Gund Ranch near Eureka, Zick said.
The results showed reductions in the amount of cheatgrass from 500 pounds biomass per acre to 90 pounds per acre.
"In subsequent years, we reduced the cheatgrass to less than 90 pounds," Perryman said. "With the reduction in wildfire potential came improvement in perennial grass production. Over the course of the study, production of perennial grasses increased from 45 pounds per acre to 577 pounds to the acre."
Perryman and Bruce began the research to investigate whether the previously held theories were true regarding cheatgrass and grazing it only when the grass was green, Zick said.
"You can't get enough animals to graze it all, you don't know when it is going to be green, making it difficult to plan, and you don't know how many animals to bring to an area before it is too late," said Perryman.
"The notion that animals don't eat dry cheatgrass is incorrect," he said. "Our experiment showed that once the seeds fell off the plants, the cheatgrass became palatable."
Perryman also ruled out the notion that dry cheatgrass has no nutritional value.
"The protein content and energy of cheatgrass in the fall is at least as good, if not better, than perennial grasses. And the results were consistent through the four-year study," he said.
Gralian said Elko Land and Livestock has tested Great Basin wild rye and cheatgrass and found cattle graze either one almost identically.
"The intake on cheatgrass is even better," he said.
The theory is that as grazing reduces the amount of cheatgrass the better perennials will take its place.
"We analyzed the cheatgrass in the lab. The protein level fluctuated between 3.5 percent and 6 percent, but never went below the 3.5 percent. Energy levels measured 45 percent and above," Perryman said.
"Fall grazing is of great benefit to ranchers, giving them another source of forage that previously was not considered nutritious," said Bruce.
Perryman and Bruce began their research by shifting the calving cycle to later in the season, Zick said.
"We made sure that the cows were in the second trimester before putting them on a cheatgrass diet," Bruce said.
"This time in their production cycle is less nutritiously damaging. We supplemented their diet with Anipro liquid protein just as ranchers do when grazing with local perennial grasses in the fall," he added.
Bruce pointed out that liquid protein supplement not only stimulates cattle's appetite, but also keeps them in a specific area where the cheatgrass is located.
"We found that the cows either maintained their weight or gained weight," he said.
Perryman said the cheatgrass research "couldn't find a downside to fall grazing."
Cheatgrass is a common name given to downy brome by farmers in the West who thought they had been given impure seed when the downy brome started spreading into their wheat fields.
The invasive species spread quickly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, displacing native plants, and is now the dominant species on more than 100 million acres in the West, according to the BLM.