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We have received some questions recently about our research project on prairie dogs in the Thunder Basin National Grasslands and, in particular, why University of Wyoming (UW) is interested in forage quality relative to black-tailed prairie dogs, Cynomys ludovicianus.  These questions have come from a recent UW press release that shared some preliminary results that, in 2016, forage quality was found to be higher on prairie dog colonies. 

Some folks have expressed concern, and today, I want to just put that single preliminary result into the larger context of our research project.  To do that, I need to look at prairie dogs from the agricultural and conservation perspectives and then tell you about our broader questions that we want to answer to ultimately help you. 

From an agricultural perspective and as the readers of this publication are well aware, prairie dogs are herbivores and consume the same grass that is needed for livestock. Diet overlap estimates between prairie dogs and cattle has been estimated at about 75 percent, with prairie dog diets being comprised of more than 80 percent grasses. It is suggested that 265 to 335 prairie dogs consume as much grass as one cow. 

Moreover, prairie dogs may also simply prune the vegetation at times just to open up the vegetation structure, so they can see predators. As we all are able to very easily see, prairie dogs reduce vegetation on rangelands. 

A study from eastern Colorado also indicated that yearling steer weight gains decreased by five and 13 percent when prairie dog colonies comprised 20 and 60 percent of a pasture.  Another study, from Oklahoma, did not show a reduction in steer weight gains associated with prairie dog induced reductions of forage, but that study has been criticized for problems with the statistical analysis used. 

Studies from the southern portion of black-tailed prairie dog range have shown that cattle preferentially graze on the edge of colonies potentially because of higher forage quality in the colony but higher forage quantity outside of the colony. In other words, prairie dogs and associated forage dynamics can influence livestock distribution.    

From a conservation perspective, black-tailed prairie dogs are a wildlife species that is of conservation concern. Current estimates suggest that this rodent only occupies about 10 percent of its historical range today.  Moreover, many other wildlife species rely on prairie dogs as a food source or on the habitat that it structures.  In 2009, Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed a petition to list prairie dogs under the Endangered Species Act, but it was determined that such protection was not warranted. I also anticipate that black-tailed prairie dogs will be petitioned again in the future. 

Wyoming is pretty important for that remaining 10 percent of occupied habitat, and I have heard estimates that Wyoming has about 40 to 50 percent of the remaining black-tailed prairie dogs in the country. 

Further complicating the conservation perspective, black-tailed prairie dogs in eastern Wyoming are interspersed within sagebrush habitat that is important for sage grouse. Many questions about how these two wildlife species exist with different habitat structure needs come to mind.  In other words, the low structure of prairie dog colonies is not suitable for sage grouse nesting or screening cover and expansion of prairie dogs will have an impact on other wildlife such as sage grouse.

With all of that in mind, we here at UW have been approached by stakeholders in the Thunder Basin, including ranchers, asking for a holistic understanding of prairie dog effects on forage and habitat.  Some of the momentum for this is also related to the role of the Forest Service in managing for multiple use. 

In other words, as we currently sit today, livestock and prairie dogs will interact on the Thunder Basin National Grassland. That is a guarantee, and thus, we need to understand all we can about that interaction.  This public land situation is obviously quite different from management on private land where landowners have more options for managing prairie dogs. 

Moreover, much of the research that exists has been done in either Montana, South Dakota or Colorado, but we want to provide producers and managers with local information to guide local decision making. For example, forage quality and quantity has been already studied on National Grasslands in Montana and South Dakota, with the conclusion that reductions in forage quality and quantity changes varied by grassland type and precipitation. The study can be found at naldc.nal.usda.gov/naldc/download.x?id=58171&content=PDF. The authors concluded that the effects of prairie dogs, at certain times and locations, enhanced forage digestibility and nitrogen content with no effect on forage quantity. 

At other locations there were negative effects or neutral effects. As the Wyoming Extension range specialist, I say, well, that is great for Montana and South Dakota, but does it happen the same way in Wyoming? Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t. 

We are currently measuring much more than just forage quality, including forage quantity, grass height, vegetation obstruction, bare ground, litter, plant species composition including shrubs and invasive species and soils characteristics.  By collecting this information in Wyoming, we hope to inform you as to when prairie dog densities are not a problem, when they are potentially becoming a problem and the potential consequences for livestock production. 

For example, I am aware of colonies that look like a parking lot, but I have also seen colonies with a lot of forage. So, is that a function of prairie dog density, size of the colony, age of the colony, etc.? We need that information, so we can then extrapolate the effects on livestock production relative to the expansion of colonies and the potential consequences. If 10 percent of a one-section pasture is populated by prairie dogs, what is the effect on livestock production capability? What if that increases to 25 or 50 percent of that one section pasture? Then what? 

Moreover, by understanding forage quality and quantity, we can then calculate not only the percent crude protein available but also the pounds of crude protein available or lost depending on prairie dog characteristics. Finally, by measuring the physical structure of the vegetation, we can determine other potential consequences. 

For example, is grass height too short for cattle consumption?  Or, what is the effect on sage grouse habitat if prairie dogs continue to expand? This is important within the larger sage grouse conservation world because, as we all know, livestock are often cast as the problem. However, our research is currently indicating that the extensive livestock grazing in this area is not reducing structural features important to sage grouse, but prairie dog herbivory and expansion seems to reduce grass height and visual obstruction. 

It is our hope here in the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources to generate research that matters to people out in the state. Our prairie dog-livestock research aims to take a very holistic assessment of this issue and provide details about the intricacies of this complex social and ecological issue. The forage quality component of the project is only one very small part of a much larger project that involves ranchers and other stakeholders. 

Finally, getting this information has been quite challenging due to prairie dog expansion and required us to control prairie dogs at certain times.  Please contact me any time with thoughts or concerns at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Check out my blog ‘Rangelands4u’ at wyoextension.org/rangelands4u.

Cheyenne – Wyoming Farm Bureau members came together on Feb. 25-26 for the organization’s annual legislative meeting, where they heard from a variety of speakers.

Western Sugar Cooperative Research Agronomist Rebecca Larsen was on the group’s agenda for the event. Larson looked at the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the public’s perception on GMOs.

“We don’t have to look far on the internet to find a lot of negative publicity about GM crops,” Larson said. “While we are busy farming food, a number of anti-GMO organizations are busy farming fear. They are trying to convince the American public that GMOs are unhealthy and bad for the environment.”

Anti-GMO sentiment

Larson explained that anti-GMO organizations are funded by several methods.

“The first is through organic industry,” she said. “It’s been a big deal for them to get people to derive value from organic products, so they’ll pay three times the premium for it.”

Additionally, anti-GMO organizations scare consumers into believing that GMOs are harmful.

“The Center for Food Safety is the most aggressive anti-GMO organization in North America,” Larson continued. “They file so many lawsuits on behalf of the American public, and whether they win or lose in these fear campaigns, our tax dollars go to pay their lawyers.”

She added, “Unfortunately, these campaigns are working.”

Scientific opinions

While campaigns against GMOs are working, data from Pew Research shows that there is stronger consensus for the safety of GMOs among scientists than the fact that humans are responsible for inducing climate change.

“We can’t just trust scientific consensus when it fits our ideology,” Larson said. “We need to believe it all the time. Consensus doesn’t come about overnight. It evolves over time as experts get together, talk and challenge one another on different principles to come to conclusions about safety.”

The biggest gap in what the American public believes and what scientists believe relates to GMOs.

“Only 37 percent of the American public thinks that GMOs are safe to eat, whereas 88 percent of scientists feel they are safe to eat,” she said.

Labeling efforts

There are also efforts within the American public to mandate labeling of GMOs, and Larson explained that surveys that show Americans are in favor of GMO labeling are often skewed.

“When surveys ask about GMOs, they ask, ‘Do you want to see GMOs labeled?’ An overwhelming number of people say yes because they don’t understand it,” she continued. “However, Rutgers University did a study where they asked, ‘What would you like to see on your food labels that currently isn’t there?’ Only seven percent of respondents voluntarily said GMOs.”

Later in the survey, when asked if people wanted to see GMOs labeled, 88 percent of people answered yes.

Oklahoma State University built on the survey with their own research. The survey showed that 82 percent of respondents wanted to see GMOs labeled.

“They followed that up by asking how many people wanted to see DNA labeled,” Larson explained. “Eighty percent of those respondents wanted to see DNA labeled. Everything contains DNA, but the American public is so misinformed about the basics of biology.”

Coming from farmers

Larson noted that the information from consumers means that more advocacy is necessary.

“Everyone needs to realize that farmers are the second most trusted source of information in the eye of Americans, with the number one being physicians,” she said. “The voice of farmers is very powerful, and Americans want to hear their story.”

While farmers don’t have the time to read every GMO study out there, she said that farmers see the benefit of GM crops every day.

“Farmers know that they are using 50 percent as much fuel and 30 percent less water than with non-GM crops,” Larson explained. “These are important things to realize.”

Focusing on points

While farmers don’t have time to memorize hundred of studies, Larson said that Western Sugar Cooperative encourages its growers to focus on a few simple points.

“When we think about sustainability, we need to realize that farmers are the environmentalists,” Larson commented. “We made a list and counted over 25 different environmental benefits from reducing use of herbicides, as well as the impacts of soil health and water usage.”

Over the last 10 years, she added that producers are producing the same amount of sugar on 30 percent fewer acres because of the increase in productivity.

“We’ve also had fewer crop losses,” Larson explained.

GMO technology also allows more focused weed control and pest control, as well as use fewer on-farm fungicides and insecticides.

“Our farmers release 83 percent less carbon dioxide from the soil than we do with conventional sugarbeets,” she added. “When they looked at organic production, they found it was five percent worse than conventional.”

Larson continued, “The environmental impact of using glyphosate-resistant sugarbeets is over 90 percent lower than using conventional beets.”

Cancer

Many people also focus on the idea that glyphosate causes cancer, as was indicated by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC).

“IARC says glyphosate probably causes cancer,” Larson said. “However, their own monograph said they don’t have evidence of that happening in humans.”

While IARC is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), WHO does not agree with the IARC ruling.

“IARC is one of four scientific research bodies that support WHO,” Larson commented. “The other three don’t agree with IARC, so WHO still says glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer.”

At the same time, Larson emphasized that IARC also classifies eating French fries and pickled foods, using lotion containing aloe vera and using a cell phone is in the same category for likelihood to cause cancer as glyphosate.

“Glyphosate is less likely to cause cancer than being exposed to the sun, drinking a cup of coffee, drinking a beer or eating bacon,” she said. “We can’t pick and choose our science.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Riverton
– “Cheatgrass is an annual grass that is wreaking havoc over the entire western United States, causing millions of acres to become degraded,” noted Fremont County Weed and Pest Supervisor Aaron Foster at the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Area IV Meeting in Riverton on Sept. 3.

Cheatgrass is an invasive weed that alters the successional changes of sage steppe communities, decreases biodiversity and changes the structure and function of rangelands.

“In Wyoming, we are lucky. We are not nearly as impacted as the Great Basin and the sagebrush steppe regions further west of us. We have a potential opportunity to get cheatgrass in check,” Foster commented.

Biological control

Currently, there are limited options for eliminating the weed, and land managers are searching for new solutions.

“We could really use some other tools in the toolbox for managing cheatgrass,” he stated.

One potential tool may be the use of biocontrol – the use of organisms, such as bacteria, insects or other species, that will drive out the undesirable grasses.

“One biocontrol option that is probably closest to becoming something we can use is a naturally occurring soil bacteria. A strain has been isolated to specifically target cheatgrass,” Foster explained.

The bacterium reduces cheatgrass root elongation, which reduces the vigor and growth of the plant, causing it to be less competitive with other species.

“It also reduces the amount of seed load that comes from cheatgrass in the area. With enough reduction over time, it might allow desirables to come back,” he continued.

Foster believes that the bacteria will be available as a product this fall, marketed as a biological soil amendment.

Product use

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t gotten through the approval process yet to market it as a bio-pesticide,” he noted.

EPA approval for pesticide status will affect product labeling and how it can be used to manage cheatgrass.

“Hopefully, with pesticide labeling, we can use the product on a large scale,” he commented.

Biowest Ag Solutions, a company in Idaho, is producing the product to be sold in one gallon per acre application rates at an estimated eight dollars per gallon.

“The drawback right now is that they are only going to make it available in a minimum of 250 gallon totes,” Foster mentioned. “We also want to use it quickly. We can’t put it in storage like some other products because the bacteria will die.”

Application of the product also introduces some challenges. The manufacturer recommends application when the air temperature is less than 50 degrees.

Challenges

“Aerial applicators don’t want to fly when it’s less that 40 degrees because they have freeze issues. We have a narrow window between 40 and 50 degrees on a day with no wind,” Foster explained.

It is also important to incorporate the bacteria into the soil as quickly as possible since UV light destroys them in a short period of time.

“We really want it to rain or snow as soon as possible after we apply the product to get it into the soil,” he said.

Once the product is applied, it takes a number of years for results to appear.

“It takes two or three years to see progress or impact on cheatgrass. The first year, the area will look pretty much the same, so we have to give it some time,” Foster commented.

Also, other herbicides can be used in combination with the bacteria application to manage cheatgrass areas.

Fungi product

“Another one of the biocontrol options that may also come about for cheatgrass management is a combination of four fungi,” Foster added.

Each of the four types of fungi attacks a different component of the cheatgrass, from dormant seeds to germinating seeds and young plants.

“The hypothesis is that there is a complex interaction between microorganisms in the soil and the fungi, related to a carbon influx in the soil,” he explained.

Although a predictable pattern has not yet been seen, areas of the Great Basin and Utah are experiencing mass cheatgrass die-offs in areas where the specific fungi are found.

“If we can learn to predict the die-offs, maybe we can be there in those areas to reseed with native grasses,” Foster noted.

He explained that cheatgrass control will likely require incorporating biocontrol, herbicides and land management practices to eliminate the weed.

“With these bicontrol options, we have more tools in the toolbox, which means we have more integrated programs which will hopefully increase our likelihood of success,” he said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor at the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Worland – “I get to work with a lot of different crops and a lot of different crop advisors on technology and also on fertility and specialty products,” remarked Mike Griffel, technical service representative at J.R. Simplot Company, during WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb.19.

Griffel and his team have been focused on integrating precision agriculture with science and agronomy in the last few years to help producers make better decisions about the inputs they add to their fields.

“A lot of growers have the capability to collect field data, they just don’t. They don’t want to deal with it,” he explained. “Our program ties everything together, looking at the whole field and the whole 12-month cycle.”

The program is centered on “The Four R’s of Nutrient Stewardship,” a program that was developed by The Fertilizer Institute to reflect sustainability in agriculture.

“The Four R program was developed as a way for the fertilizer industry to help us steward ourselves and hold ourselves responsible. It involves putting the right inputs in at the right time, at the right rate and at the right place,” he described.

By ensuring proper application, producers get better value out of their nutrients, seeds, water and other resources while also being more environmentally sustainable.

Evaluating a field

When producers are preparing their fields and creating nutrient prescriptions, there are a number of ways to evaluate the land. Zones and grids are two common tools used to investigate the properties of an area.

“Zones are basically little fields within a field where we look at what’s different, based on soil texture, topography or other attributes,” noted Griffel.

A grid system uses samples at evenly spaced intervals to collect similar information.

“The grid system is utilized in a few very specific areas, but people typically shy away from it,” he said, explaining that a typical field has a high number of soil samples that can be very costly. “But, there’s a phenomenal data set when we go to look at future management.”

Zones

In a zone system, the number of zones depends on the individual field. They can be developed in a number of different ways, including a system based on electrical conductivity within the soil. After a map is created to represent variance in electrical conductivity, soil sampling is done to identify the properties of each area.

“We can make zones out of topography, photosynthesis or yield. Zones are living and breathing, so there are a lot of options. We also build a system to archive and track those zones as they evolve in the field,” he remarked.

Building the zones to match the needs of the producer is the most important part of the system, according to Griffel.

“The challenge is there is no set rule,” he stated. “We rely on specific geo-statistic algorithms. We reduce data into zones, and then we send it to the grower to find out if it makes sense.”

Photosynthesis

Soil samples are typically the first part of measuring field data, but Griffel and his team can also use photosynthesis to evaluate the needs of a crop.

“During the grow phase, satellite imagery is a big component of our program,” he commented, explaining how light wavelengths can be measured to evaluate plant health. “We measure photosynthesis and pick out patterns.”

By mapping patterns, areas with unhealthy plants can be identified and investigated further to improve management practices.

“We run statistics to identify what is significant. The beautiful thing is, we can quantify acres and rank fields as we process the data so agronomists and growers can immediately prioritize them,” he noted.

Combining data

The power of combining soil, photosynthesis and yield data is being able to produce a game plan, Griffel added.

Plant growth is limited by the availability of the scarcest resource, meaning that balance is an important part of field maintenance.

“With yield modeling, we can correlate soil samples, and we can identify which maps have the strongest relationships to yield data in our fields,” he explained.

In one example, combining data sets revealed that too much phosphorous was lowering yields in some areas of a particular field, leading to changes in fertilizer application at that operation the next year. Fewer inputs were added and plant health improved.

Applying technology

“This helps us understand what the limiting factor is,” Griffel continued. “Sometimes, we don’t see strong correlations, and the problem might be with water, seed or something that isn’t measured in the soil test, but we continue to aggregate the data.”

Griffel challenged producers to consider using technology in their own fields, asking their agronomists and crop advisors about options that fit best with their own operations.

“I don’t look at technology as an extra cost. We apply it to find savings and to get more out of our field,” he said.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at natasha@wylr.net.

“About 25 years ago, I observed that some wheat varieties require less phosphorous than others for proper development and growth,” notes Jay Goos, professor of soil science at North Dakota State University.

Before he retires, Goos is revisiting his discovery to unearth further data about phosphorous in wheat.

“I made a list from USDA of wheat varieties that had achieved about 20 percent acreage planting in North Dakota,” he explains.

Seeds were obtained and increased from 47 historical varieties from the USDA inventory.

“We tested the varieties to see which ones require the least phosphorous for the proper growth and development. There are great differences in regards to phosphorous needs in wheat varieties,” Goos states.

Results

Although it might have been expected that the fastest growing plants would require the highest amount of the nutrient, this is not what Goos discovered.

“We did not find that varieties that grow the fastest require more phosphorous,” he says. “What we have found is that the varieties that develop the fastest tend to require more phosphorous.”

These plants, Goos explains, are those that require the fewest growing degree-days to create a new leaf on the main stem.

“Rapid development has more to do with maturity. If it takes fewer growing degree-days to produce a leaf, it is going to head earlier and so on,” he comments.

His data shows that varieties that have more sensitivity to day length, growing more slowly in the spring, tend to require less phosphorous for proper growth and development.

Next step

“We have tested the historical varieties, and our next step is to look at about 50 current and future varieties,” Goos adds.

In a typical plant breeding scenario, a grower may not be able to detect which plants require the highest levels of phosphorous, since crops are grown in high quality soils.

“A normal plant breeder wants the best land possible that’s been heavily fertilized so they can find varieties that have the most productivity, and that’s logical,” he states.

But Goos believes that farmers should be as informed as possible about the crops they are growing.

“A farmer is going to grow a given variety for a whole list of reasons, but I think a farmer should know whether that particular variety has a really high need for phosphorous,” Goos comments.

Application

For example, in the 1990s, wheat was plagued by a disease called Fusarium head blight. A wheat variety known as 2375 seemed to be the only one with some resistance to the disease.

“Those farmers were going to grow that variety,” Goos says, “but now we know that variety is one of the biggest phosphate hogs in the world.”

  Soil tests show that phosphorous levels are dropping, but fertilizer prices continue to increase.

“It will probably become more expensive in the future because there is a finite amount of rock phosphate in the world,” he remarked.

Farmers hoping to reduce inputs or costs may find Goos’ research to be important when choosing which variety of wheat to use.

“More knowledge is always better,” Goos notes. “This has been a fascinating subject to learn, and farmers seem to be interested in it. Hopefully we can characterize current and future varieties.”

Natasha Wheeler is editor at the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..