Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Cheatgrass Grazing Debate

We had to make a quick trip to Boise and stopped to check the calves on their winter pasture. Bob, their caretaker, met us and we jumped in his rickety fencing pickup to make the final bumpy ride. The calves came to meet us, curious, a few bucking and playing in the distance. 

It’s always fun to look at grass and this range is unlike anything we have here at home. Looking out across the sward you’d swear it was solid annual cheatgrass, but upon closer inspection, you see lots of perennial poa bunchgrass, with cheatgrass in the interspaces. 

Annual grass plants have their place, but perennials are more desirable for lots of reasons. They have deeper roots which stabilize the soil and reach further for moisture, and they have a longer window of palatability for cattle and wildlife. Annuals dry off quickly and are prone to returning fires.

Bob told us how his grazing management promotes healthy perennials. He said that removing last year’s growth allows sunlight to reach the growing point of the perennials and removes some of the competition from the annuals. He makes sure to take the cattle off early, usually by mid-May, to allow the plants to regrow and “recover” completely before returning.

Surveying the grazed portions, Bob said he would like to see it all looking like this. If it did, they “might have a chance against fires.” Wildfire, the biggest threat to healthy rangelands in Idaho’s low elevation areas, is uppermost in Bob’s mind. Last year’s moisture means lots of highly flammable standing dry material and fires move quickly here impacting hundreds and often thousands of acres in a hurry.

The calves will soon be moving to federal land operated by the Bureau of Land Management. Bob would like them to allow more animals to help eliminate some of the dry grass, but government standards aren’t as changeable as weather patterns. 

Using grazing to moderate cheatgrass stands is hotly debated. Some people believe that overgrazing of perennials by cattle and sheep caused the widespread presence of cheatgrass. Some people believe that well managed grazing is the only way to get the perennials to return. I believe both are right.

Grazing can be good, grazing can be bad, it depends on management. What time of year are the animals present? How long do they stay? When do they return? Getting it right means good things on the land.

1 comment:

  1. Wouldn't it be good if we could all sit down - environmentalists, government, and ranchers, and work these things out for the good of everyone! You write so good!!!