Grass die-off baffles resource managersWritten by Jennifer Womack
The first call came from Doug DesEnfants, who ranches 12 miles east of Jay Em in northern Goshen County. Mount says he’s since heard from additional Goshen County ranchers and some Platte County landowners. Visiting the DesEnfants’ ranch in early May, Mount says the affected area never greened up. “Three weeks ago it looked like somebody sprayed it with Roundup herbicide,” says Mount.
Describing the area as 640 acres, DesEnfants says the pasture was about 30 percent dead as of early June. “If I knew what was going on I’d fix it,” he says. “It must be drought related, but I don’t know what the problem is for sure. We didn’t do anything to hurt it. There was no livestock in there last year.” It also hasn’t been grazed this year. He says the area is completely void of vegetation.
“It’s not one large block, but scattered patches across an area rancher Roger Huckfeldt describes as stretching from about six to 20 miles north of Torrington. “The weeds are starting to show up now,” says Huckfeldt, “but to start with pretty much everything was gone out of those areas.”
Mount says he believes the grasses were dead before spring ever arrived. Even the roots are dead, he says. “It doesn’t seem to be tied to ownership, how hard the area has been grazed or management,” says Mount. Sedge, buffalo grass, needle and thread grass, western wheatgrass and buffalo sedge are among the species he says are affected. “The entomologists tell me if it was bugs it would be just one species,” says Mount. Some range professionals, he says, think it might be drought related.
If it was drought related, Huckfeldt says he thinks the die-off would be more prevalent on the ridges than in the draw bottoms. “Some of these pastures haven’t seen cattle for a year,” he says. Some of the die off, he says, is happening on smaller areas while others are “good sized.” While much of the state has seen a better year thus far, Huckfeldt says the drought persists in his area.
“Where I’ve noticed the most is on the southern facing slopes toward the bottoms,” says Huckfeldt of the dead areas.
Range professional Dr. Mike Smith of the University of Wyoming says cutworms may be the culprit. “There have been incidences such as this in northeastern Colorado that were thought to be due to cutworms,” he says. Because the damage was discovered after the worms were gone, Smith says there were no experiments to confirm the die off’s cause.
“Apparently there are no other potential causes with any credibility,” says Smith. “If it were drought there should have been a more extensive occurrence. In this case there are patches with pretty distinct edges that do not coincide with any soil feature that would support the drought idea.”
A tour of the area, including the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is set for July 16. Huckfeldt and DesEnfants are among those who hope solutions can be found. “We want to make sure the area doesn’t get bigger in years to come,” says Huckfeldt.
Erosion is also a concern. “I don’t think a person can act like a farmer and run equipment across it. You’d do more damage than good, but it does need to be reseeded,” says Huckfeldt. Management of the areas moving forward will be among the topics discussed during the July 16 outing.