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Management

Knowing Rangeland Plants is an Advantage for Ranchers

Written by Derek Scasta

A rancher and Extension rangeland specialist who has been a long-time mentor of mine had a regular adage about rangeland plants that he used over and over – “If you can’t name it, you can’t see it.” His argument was that until a person learned to recognize a plant and refer to a name for the plant, that person was unlikely to notice that plant out on the range. Furthermore, if a person was unable to notice the plant and relate it to a name, that person would also be unable to notice changes in plant abundance, potential negative or positive effects on livestock or wildlife or competition with other plants in the ecosystem.  For these reasons, the ability to identify a plant out on rangelands is a foundational skill that all rangeland professionals need.

Because ranchers care about the land and animals that use the land and also actively make management decisions, ranchers are rangeland professionals, and enhancing rangeland plant identification skills is an advantage that ranchers should polish.  However, this is easier said than done because identifying plants is hard and takes a lot of practice.  A person could encounter hundreds to thousands of plant species in a lifetime, and plants can look very different at various growth stages. Consequently, one of the most common questions I have gotten over my career is “What is the name of this plant?” My experience has also indicated that because this is a difficult skill to develop and one of the most common and foundational questions in rangeland management, a person with plant identification skills is a person who is in demand.

One of the first things anyone interested in learning plant names needs to learn is the difference between the common name and the scientific name.  The common name, for example big bluestem, is different depending on language and may be different depending on local regional names.  For example, big bluestem is often commonly called “bluestem,” “bluejoint,” “beardgrass,” “poptillo gigante” or “turkeyfoot.”  However, the scientific name is in Latin and is internationally recognized.  Big bluestem’s Latin name is Andropogon gerardii. Andropogon is the genus, and gerardii is the species.  Therefore, it can be important to learn both common and scientific names to avoid any confusion.  This may also help you talk to agency employees or researchers who sound like they are speaking Latin – because they may actually be speaking Latin! 

There are a lot of very practical reasons ranchers may need to know the name of a plant.  First, it is important to understand the value a plant can have for livestock production.  Some plants, such as the native warm-season sod grasses like blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) and buffalograss (Bouteloua dactyloides), may not produce a lot of forage quantity, but they can tolerate heavy grazing and maintain quality. In contrast, the native cool-season grass basin wildrye (Leymus cinereus) is one of the largest bunchgrasses that produces a lot of forage in quantity but may not tolerate heavy grazing. 

Second, it is important to know if a plant is native or introduced to North America and if it is invasive.  One of the most notorious introduced, or non-native, grasses that can be invasive is cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). 

Third, some plants can be toxic to livestock and identification can be the key to either avoid grazing pastures during risky periods or herding stock away from large populations of toxic plants.  Common toxic plants in Wyoming include locoweeds (Astragalus species and Oxtropis species) and larkspur (Delphinium species). 

Finally, it is important to know the value plants have for wildlife such as yarrow (Achillea species). Yarrow is a small flowering plant that is commonly eaten by sage grouse during certain times of the year.     

So how can you optimize the plant identification advantage? You can start by acquiring plant identification books.  A good start would be a book hot off the press by our team of Extension rangeland educators called Rangeland Plants: Wyoming Tough B-1265.  This book has photos, key characteristics and information on preferred habitat, forage value and plant identification tips for 75 of the most common grasses, grass-likes, flowering plants and woody plants in Wyoming. The cost is eight dollars, and the book can be ordered at wyoextension.org/publications/Search_Details.php?pubid=1878&pub=B-1265

A second resource is a second printing of A Field Guide to Wyoming Grasses.  This 569-page book has a very comprehensive overview of the common and not-so-common grasses of Wyoming.  It includes locations maps and the highest quality pictures of key plant characteristics you will ever find!   The cost is $55 plus six dollars for shipping. It can be ordered at wyoextension.org/publications/Search_Details.php?pubid=1481&pub=FGWG-1

The third resource is the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Database website that is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service at plants.usda.gov/java.  This website can be searched by common or scientific names, has pictures of each plant and a map of known locations that now goes to the county level. 

Finally, if all else fails and you cannot identify a plant, contact your local University of Wyoming Extension educators. We will be glad to help out.