Grazing reduce cheatgrass loadsWritten by Heather Smith Thomas
Cheatgrass and lack of grazing are two factors that contribute to major wildfires in the West. If cheatgrass can be grazed in the fall, this reduces fire danger for the next year. Protein supplements can be used strategically to encourage cattle to use areas they might not otherwise graze. This enables cattle to use more of the pasture, as well as reduce fuel loads for wildfires.
Bill Wilber is a rancher in southeastern Oregon who lost 39 cattle on his range allotment during the Buzzard Complex Fire in July 2014, one of many fires in Oregon that year.
“This is a perfect example of the problem we’re trying to prevent. We participated in a research project with University of Nevada and Dr. Barry Perryman. His research study on reducing cheatgrass and medusahead with grazing has been quite successful,” says Wilber.
Studying the range
This study began in 2012, looking at the effects fall grazing could have on reducing fuel loads. Wilber moved 330 cows into a 14,000-acre pasture in early October 2012, and they grazed until Jan. 4, 2013 – more than 90 days of grazing on this cheatgrass-dominated range.
The study not only assessed the effects of fall grazing on cheatgrass, but also on the cattle.
“Prior to moving the cattle into this pasture, 20 percent of the cows were evaluated as to body condition score. They were re-evaluated when brought out of the pasture in January. There was improvement in body scores and weight gain,” says Wilber.
“In 2014, we again body scored 20 percent of the cows prior to going into the pasture and again when they were removed. The body condition scores were substantially higher after the cattle came out of the cheatgrass pasture,” he says.
This shows that they did very well on the dry cheatgrass, supplemented with protein.
“This late season grazing has been very successful in three ways. The cows ate the buildup of fuel. It also saved us a substantial cost in hay since the cows were able to use cheatgrass during that period rather than being fed hay,” Wilber comments. “For this to work, however, they need a protein supplement to provide adequate protein to utilize the dry cheatgrass, and this makes it an excellent feed.”
“The third benefit is that the cattle actually maintained themselves very well and most of them gained weight,” he says.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cooperated in this project by allowing cattle to be out there in the late fall, which was later than their traditional use.
“They recognize that the buildup of fuel is a serious issue. The only way to remove it is by grazing,” he explains.
“For this project, we put our cows into a very large pasture that had burned in 2007 because it had too much fuel load, and then after the fire it grew back even thicker to more cheatgrass and medusahead – a weed that is also a significant problem,” says Wilber.
“If it all burns up and the cheatgrass and medusahead come in thickly, that’s all we will have in that area, unless we can graze it off and give the perennial grasses a chance to come back,” he says.
“We had a tour afterward on this allotment and discovered perennial bunchgrass starting to re-emerge. The cattle had removed the competition. We can tip the balance back to perennials if we reduce the cheatgrass and medusahead. It’s a slow process, and we have to be patient,” says Wilber.
It will work, however, if cattle are allowed to graze these areas during fall and winter, he notes.
“We are hoping that this plan for grazing will continue on our allotment, but of course it will be up to the BLM to make that decision,” he adds. “It is successful enough, however, that there is precedence now being established.”
This is a good example to show what could be done on other ranges.
Working on rangelands
“The evidence is clear that BLM must do something about fuel buildups because of the horrendous fires we’ve been having,” says Wilber, adding that it costs BLM and taxpayers a lot of money to fight fires, destroying wildlife and their habitat – not including the grazing days and cattle lost in some of these fires.
“Rick Roy of BLM told me it cost $11 million in suppression costs on the Buzzard Complex Fire in which our cattle burned up. That’s a lot of money, especially when those fuels could be put to beneficial use as cattle feed instead of burning up,” he mentions.
“Ranchers are creating food and fiber and better wildlife habitat. Grazing benefits everyone, whereas fire does not,” he says.
There are several other areas in Oregon that are starting to use fall and winter grazing to control cheatgrass.
“The Roaring Springs Ranch at French Glen is also trying this, on private land. They are using smaller pastures, with a higher concentration of cattle. This is an exciting area of progress,” says Wilber. “Now all we have to do is change the minds of people who think we should have less cattle on rangelands.”
“Increased grazing is extremely beneficial for sage grouse. The environmental community believes that cattle are their worst enemy when in reality fire is their worst enemy,” Wilber comments. “Science shows that we need grazing and that cattle are a very positive part in our efforts to ensure sage grouse survival.”
He continues that ranchers need grazing to keep the plants in balance, with a healthy stand of perennials in a healthy ecosystem so catastrophic fires don’t destroy wildlife and their habitat.
“These ranges haven’t been overgrazed in our lifetime. Overgrazing took place 100 years ago. The move to reduce cattle is ongoing, however, and now the anti-grazing interests have overdone it,” says Wilber.
The land management agencies have taken too many cattle off, for too much of the year, according to Wilber, who says that the result is an overload of fuels that leads to catastrophic fires on a dry year.
“Reduction of fuels through cattle grazing is an appropriate management method. The research station at Burns, Ore. has verified the positive aspects of grazing,” he says. “This is a serious issue for the entire West.”
Wilber adds, “We are all suffering from horrendous fires that are the direct result of insufficient grazing. The stupidity of this is that in the end, everybody suffers.”