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Grazing Crested Wheatgrass in the West

By   /  July 11, 2016  /  2 Comments

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Crested wheatgrass is a Russian native that was purposely introduced to rangelands in the American West as a forage and an erosion control tool starting in the 1900s. It became especially widely used starting shortly after the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 through the fifties when land managers were working on restoring rangelands impacted by heavy grazing. It adapted well to its new home and now ranchers find it almost everywhere. Here Jim Gerrish shows how it works in his grazing system as part of his mid-June rotation.

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Not all of the ranch unit we manage is under the pivots. We also have about a hundred acres of flood irrigated land and another couple hundred acres of desert pasture. Some is native, but the majority was seeded to crested wheatgrass sometime in the 70s or before. No one seems to quite know for sure when it was seeded.

Generally the desert area gets grazed only once a year, although last year with our 11+ inches of rain during the growing season, we did graze it twice.

Some of those acres have a fair bit of cheatgrass & mustards, so this is generally the time of year we try to capture the limited value of those two species.This field is the cleanest field, but also typically low in production as there is almost nothing besides the crested out there.

This picture shows a common growth form for Crested Wheatgrass. Here it is 40 to 50 years after it was seeded and the crested is still in rows.

American GrazingLands Services LLC's photo.

I think this is an indication of how truly difficult it is to get grass seedlings established in a degraded semi-arid environment. The individual bunches are more robust than they were 10 years ago, but I can’t say the stand has thickened.

In 2007 I deferred use until September to allow everything to go to seed and then grazed it hoping to get a little late summer rain to get something going. We did not graze it in 2008 to allow an opportunity for new plants to establish. I can’t tell we did any good.

In 2012 it was not grazed and allowed to go to seed. We then grazed it in 2013 at about this time of year.

As I went over the pasture in mid-June before turning the cattle in, I do believe we have improved the Idaho fescue a little bit more than we have the crested. It isn’t exactly choking the cheatgrass yet, but there is more Idaho fescue in the cheat patches than there used to be. Believe it or not, this is substantial improvement compared to what was here when we arrived at the ranch 11 years ago:

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Even though the crested wheatgrass is fully headed now, the cows are still enjoying it. In another couple of weeks, they wouldn’t have liked it very much. I’ve found if I delay grazing this area until after the end of June, they do a lot of complaining.

Jim Gerrish Cattle grazing crested wheatgrass

Some more observations on selective grazing. The pictures below are from the 3-day grazing period on our 120-acre desert paddock. It is, however, a microcosm of the ongoing problems on much of the weed-infested rangeland of the greater American West.

Over years and years of set stocking (continuous grazing in the vernacular) on both private and public range, desirable plants have been severly grazed repeatedly until it became overgrazing. The cheatgrass and some other weeds are grazed much less and so they proliferate.

In just this 3-day window of time, nearly all the wheatgrass and Idaho fescue were grazed while much of the cheat and foxtail barley were left untouched. While many folks are concerned about knapweed on rangeland, it is one of the plants our cattle attack voraciously even without high stock density.

Here’s what I consider an acceptable level of utilization on crested wheatgrass. Note the surrounding mustard stems.

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Here is a wider view of the same residual clump of Crested wheatgrass. If we left the cattle longer to ‘clean up the weeds’, they would graze the Crested wheatgrass much more severely before they ate the weeds to a detrimental extent.

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This is why the idea of leaving cattle in a pastures at a low stock density for an extended period of time will always favor the weeds over the desirables.

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The good news is in this 3-day grazing period virtually every spotted knapweed plant was moderately to severely grazed. (Click on over here for Jim’s article on grazing spotted knapweed.)

From this, showing not-yet-grazed knapweed against the side of the cow:

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To this:

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I gave the herd of 367 pairs about 7-1/2 acres for just two hours early this morning. That grazing was at about 75,000 lbs/acre stock density The remaining 17 acres they will have for 24 hours at a stock density of about 32,000 lbs/acre.

Not a lot of weeds in this field, but not a lot of grass either. The crested is all headed out, but not yet at anthesis (the flowering period from when the bud opens).

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Cattle have their greatest appetite in the first few hours of daylight so they hit it pretty hard.

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The left side of the fence is after 2 hours of grazing at 75000 lbs/acre stock density. That is far higher than we usually run on this pasture. It is comparable to what we do on the pivots for 24 hours.

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Looking into the next piece of pasture. Yes, we do have a few rocks around.

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Kathy’s note: From my days in pasture in Colorado, I found that the cattle preferred the weeds to crested wheatgrass and I was forever trying to get them into the pasture at the right time so they would graze it. I appreciate Jim showing me how it’s done.

 

natglc-logo-1Thanks to the National Grazing Lands Coalition for making this article possible. Click on over to see the great work they do for all of us. Thank them for supporting On Pasture by liking their facebook page.

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About the author

Jim Gerrish is the author of "Management-Intensive Grazing: The Grassroots of Grass Farming" and "Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing" and is a popular speaker at conferences around the world. His company, American GrazingLands Services LLC is dedicated to improving the health and sustainable productivity of grazing lands around the world through the use of Management-intensive Grazing practices. They work with small farms, large ranches, government agencies and NGO's to promote economically and environmentally sustainable grazing operations and believe healthy farms and ranches are the basis of healthy communities and healthy consumers. Visit their website to find out more about their consulting services and grazing management tools, including electric fencing, stock water systems, forage seed, and other management tools.

2 Comments

  1. Jim Gerrish says:

    Hi John, My understanding is that crested is just very efficient with water & nutrient uptake making it a very competitive plant. I don’t think there is any compelling evidence indicating it is actually excreting alleleopathic compounds. Jim

  2. John Marble says:

    A question for Jim:
    I’ve observed many crested wheat plantings like those in your first photo, and wondered why our native grasses are so slow to naturally invade and fill in the stand. Is crested wheat allelopathic?

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