Wyomingites look at solutions for cheatgrass in unique challenge settingWritten by Gayle Smith
Lingle – “Of all the brome grasses represented in Wyoming, this is the weediest. I think in no place has it been found serviceable as a fodder or pasture plant. It seems to be shunned by stock to such an extent that it may attain maturity almost anywhere. It is not particularly unsightly but simply a worthless plant.”
These words written by Aven Nelson, the botanist, about cheatgrass in The Brome Grasses of Wyoming, a Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station bulletin, may ring familiar to many folks. What is interesting about his thoughts is that he wrote these words in 1901 – 114 years ago.
Since then, millions of dollars have been spent trying to develop an effective way of controlling cheatgrass, but today the plant can still spread rapidly over grazing land just as it did 114 years ago. After watching “The Biggest Loser” one evening, Brian Mealor and his wife Rachel came up with an idea – why not have a contest like “The Biggest Loser,” but make it about weed control.
From this idea came the Cheatgrass Restoration Challenge, which is a competition to see who can restore a degraded pasture back to a diverse, healthy pasture system. This “challenge” is taking place at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) in Lingle.
“Cheatgrass is one of the most widespread, problematic and invasive plants we have in the western U.S.,” Mealor told producers during the SAREC Open House and Field Day. “People are very concerned about it because of its effects on sage grouse habitat and the changes it makes in the fire cycle and frequency.”
“It also reduces the green window we have for grazing in the summer, and basically, it effects the way our ecosystem works,” he continued.
To get the challenge started, invitations were sent out to various entities to form teams and see how well they could do taking different approaches to controlling cheatgrass. Mealor said the teams will be taking a “back to the future” type of approach, using tried and true methods to control the noxious plant while re-establishing habitat and grazing land.
“The challenge for each team is to restore their allotted piece of land to a diverse, productive rangeland using any legal method,” Mealor explained.
The 13 teams that signed up for the challenge drew for their one-quarter-acre plots this spring at random.
“The plots were roughly 80 percent cheatgrass cover and less than five percent perennial grasses. It is a highly degraded site,” Mealor said.
These 13 teams are made up of people from Eastern Wyoming College, University of Nebraska, ranchers, graduate and undergraduate students, Wyoming Weed and Pest, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Extension personnel.
“This is the first year of the project, and there are some dramatic results so far,” Mealor said of the plots. “It is a three-year project. The final results won’t be in until 2017.”
Mealor said they are in the process of developing a web page with icons producers can access for the particular tools they are interested in. Some of these methods are fire, mechanical control, herbicides, competitive plants and cultural control, grazing and bacterial control.
“Bacterial control is technology involving a cheatgrass-resistant bacteria that can be applied to the soil,” Mealor said. “We have two teams trying it. It is very new technology that shows real promise.”
At the end of the challenge, each team will be graded on productivity, wildlife use, plant diversity, cost of implementation, scalability and the development of an education and outreach program for their particular approach.