Cattle Can Improve Sagebrush Habitat With a Little Training

Many areas in the Western United States are dominated by sagebrush. The increase in sagebrush density over the past century is generally attributed to: 1) reduced numbers of mixed feeders and browsers such as deer, antelope, goats and sheep, 2) increased numbers of cattle and elk, 3) repeatedly grazing the same grasses and forbs, particularly during spring, and 4) fire suppression. Though the decline in diversity is due in part to grazing, grazing may in fact be the answer to improving plant diversity and wildlife habitat in sagebrush-steppe ecosystems. For example, if sheep and cattle graze sagebrush during the fall, when grasses and forbs are dormant, we reduce sagebrush’s competitive advantage, leaving more room and resources for the grasses and forbs in the next growing season. Research at Utah State University has shown that energy and protein supplements in the form of hay and alfalfa pellets or range cubes help livestock detoxify the terpenes found in sagebrush and can even double the amount of sagebrush they eat. In addition, some studies suggest that rumen microbes may need to adapt to sagebrush in order to use it. Researcher Chuck Peterson used this information to help cattle on Agee Smith's Wells, Nevada ranch to begin eating sagebrush. After learning about this at a talk by Utah State University's Dr. Fred Provenza, Mat Carter,

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