Improving Rangeland in the Semi-Arid West

Improving Rangeland in the Semi-Arid West

Improving Rangeland in the Semi-Arid West

In the semi-arid Intermountain West, much of the rangeland has been degraded due to monocultures of invasive annuals (such as cheatgrass) replacing the native perennial shrub-dominated vegetation communities. Additionally, there are growing concerns about the increased costs and environmental impacts of nitrogen fertilizer used on these lands.

Research by geneticist Dr. Blair Waldron, USDA-ARS Forage and Range Research Lab in Logan, Utah, has led to a better understanding of the positive uses of perennial shrubs (such as Forage Kochia) and grass-legume mixes in managing rangeland in the semi-arid west. His research will assist ranchers and land managers in decreasing invasive species, lessen damage from wildfires, reduce nitrogen fertilizer use and feeding costs, and increase environmental stewardship.

Forage Kochia

In the SARE-funded project “Perennial Forage Kochia for Improved Sustainability of Grass-Dominated Ecosystems” (SW04-060), Waldron and his collaborators found that forage kochia can be established on damaged rangelands, protect against wildfire and compete with invasive species. The replacement of native perennial shrub-dominated vegetation communities by invasive annuals, particularly cheatgrass, has been a serious problem on semi-arid rangelands of the Intermountain West. The problems that have occurred include reduced soil stability, increased wildfire hazard, reduced habitat quality for wildlife and reduced forage value for livestock. There was evidence that the establishment of forage kochia could help overcome these problems, but there were questions about whether or not cattle would eat the forage kochia and about its value as a forage resource.

The study took place in two successive years (2007 and 2008) at two locations: one in the Tooele Valley on land owned by the Grantsville Conservation District, the other in Rush Valley on land owned by Darrell Johnson, a local rancher. The two sites are approximately 18 miles apart and have different ecological site descriptions. The objective was to evaluate livestock nutrient intake and performance responses to rangeland with or without forage kochia.

Forage yield on rangelands seeded with forage kochia was 2,309 pounds per acre. This is six times greater than the forage yield on traditional grazing lands. The forage had a crude protein content well above the recommended minimum. By establishing forage kochia on damaged rangeland, less land will be needed to manage more beef cattle. And this “allows other land to rest,” according to Waldron.

View a video presentation by Waldron about this project. 

Grass-Legume Mixtures

Waldron has begun a more recently funded SARE project, “Grass-Legume Pastures to Increase Economic and Environmental Sustainability of Livestock Production” (SW10-088) to meet the challenges of recent high costs of nitrogen fertilizer and increasing environmental stewardship. Waldron will focus on the grasses, and participant Michael Peel, also of USDA-ARS will focus on the legumes.

A renewal of the mixed grass-legume pasture has the potential to meet both needs. As Waldron states, “In the mid-1950s pastures had legumes, but legumes in pastures have become a thing of the past.” There are few guidelines on which species and grass-legume ratios optimize economic and environmental sustainability. This project will

  • Compare livestock performance, economics and subsequent meat quality of beef produced from grass monocultures versus low- and high-tannin grass-legume mixtures;
  • Determine best possible grass-legume mixtures and plant densities that maximize pasture productivity; and
  • Determine if high-tannin legumes can reduce potential nitrogen-based environmental impacts in grass grazing systems.

Overall this research will evaluate the economic and environmental benefits of grass-legume pasture mixtures as compared to using commercial nitrogen fertilizer. Waldron’s goal is to be able to provide producers with “ideas of what to grow and the correct ratios of each grass and legume.”

The research is being conducted both on USDA-ARS pasture land and on farms in southern Idaho and Utah. On the ARS pasture land, five grasses and three legumes, in different ratios are being tested. Thirty-six cows are being grazed on this land in three rotational plots. Waldron and Peel say that management challenges include weeds, grazing time and fewer choices of herbicides if grasses and legumes are mixed.

Progress reports on the grass-legume mixture research project will be posted on the MySARE database.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) SW04-060, Perennial Forage Kochia for Improved Sustainability of Grass-Dominated Ecosystems , and SW10-088, Grass-Legume Pastures to Increase Economic and Environmental Sustainability of Livestock Production .

Product specs
Author(s): Stacie Clary
Location: Utah | West

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