Improving intake on big sagebrush by cattle in Fall and Winter to reduce feed costs and improve biodiversity and productivity in the sagebrush steppe

Final Report for FW10-048

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Western
State: Nevada
Principal Investigator:
Agee Smith
Cottonwood Ranch LLC
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Project Information


The first year of the project of teaching cattle to graze sagebrush started January 7, 2011. One hundred and forty-one head of cows, with approximately thirty-five head (25%) having prior experience grazing sagebrush, were used. The cattle performed as expected by using sagebrush and rabbitbrush as forage, thereby promoting a diversified and improved plant community that benefits both livestock and wildlife alike. The approximately 50% reduction in hay needed to feed the cows was an economic benefit to the ranch. On June 24, 2011, the ranch conducted a tour to demonstrate the results (see details below).

The second year of the project started on December 18, 2011. Forty-two head of cows, with approximately 50% having prior experience grazing sagebrush, were used. The cattle did not perform as they did during the first year of the project (winter of 2010/2011). This is thought to have been the result of changes in the treatment strategy, along with a variety of other factors. On November 16, 2012, the ranch conducted a tour to demonstrate the results (see details below).


This project addresses two problems that many ranchers face in the Great Basin: 1) degradation of sagebrush steppe plant communities, and 2) increasing feed costs for livestock during fall and winter. It is unique because big sagebrush is rarely considered suitable forage for livestock because most ranchers see it as unpalatable. Increasing intake of sagebrush by cattle will depend on their prior experience with sagebrush, its terpene content, and the quality and quantity of supplemental feed.

Foundational Research

Chuck Petersen’s Utah State University graduate research at Cottonwood Ranch focused on training cattle to eat sagebrush during the fall to improve plant biodiversity on rangelands and enhance ranch economics. Feeding trials began in late October and ended in early November from 2007 to 2009. During the adaptation and replication phases, cattle were supplemented with grass hay and a protein-energy pellet to minimize the effects of the terpenes in big sagebrush. In 2007, all cattle used in the trials were naive to sagebrush. In 2008 and 2009, experienced cattle (documented sagebrush eaters) and naive cattle foraged together in the same pastures. In 2008 and 2009, animals with experience eating sagebrush consistently ate more sagebrush and lost less weight, or actually gained weight, compared to naive animals. Cow/calf pairs, bred yearling heifers and first-calf heifer/calf pairs were used in the trials, and most ate sagebrush as a significant portion of their diet. Over three years, Chuck taught 98 cattle on the ranch that sagebrush was food. One observation that surprised both Chuck and his masters program committee was the amount of time cattle spent eating sagebrush bark and rabbitbrush. Fall grazing by cattle also reduced the abundance of big sagebrush and promoted the growth of grasses and forbs in the understory compared to control pastures. Fall and winter are ideal times for grazing big sagebrush because terpene levels in sagebrush are typically low, and perennial herbs and grasses are largely senescent.

Project Objectives:

The long-term objective is to improve ranch economics by increasing the number of cattle that can efficiently use sagebrush as winter forage, thereby reducing costs. Selecting cattle with the appropriate genetics, morphology, physiology and dietary preference will make this biological approach to improving sagebrush steppe resiliency and health a reality.

Specific objectives include:

1) explore management strategies that will improve ranch economics by reducing input costs,

2) enhance/restore sagebrush steppe vegetative biodiversity in order to meet wildlife and domestic animal habitat and nutritional needs,

3) implement grazing management strategies that ensure proper application of timing, intensity and duration,

4) create livestock herds that possess locally adapted nutritional wisdom and effectively utilize sagebrush (and other browse species),

5) successfully establish a sustainable, cattle-based, biological brush management treatment method, and

6) provide outreach opportunities and create publications that will enable other producers to use sagebrush as a winter forage source for their livestock.


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  • Chuck Petersen


Materials and methods:

Notes by Kody Menghini and Chuck Peterson

Pre-Western SARE funding

Grazing started on January 19, 2010 in the southwest corner of the Bull Pasture (a 113-acre field). It is an old crested wheatgrass (AGCR) seeding with Wyoming big sagebrush (ARTRW) and Douglas rabbitbrush (CHVI8). Since January 19, there has been approximately one week of light snow coverage (first week), then two weeks of heavier snow coverage where only ARTRW was exposed, then one week (leading up to now) where snowmelt reveals understory (AGCR and CHVI8). Started with 16 bales/44 head for first week. Assuming 70 lb bales = 25 lbs/head/day. Then, went to 10 bales/44 head (up until present) = 16 lbs/head/day. Approximately 80-85% are “white taggers” (experienced cattle from previous related research at the ranch) out of the total 44 present. Three white tag “performers” (84, 91 and 76) were in the Lodge Pasture all winter (fed hay with no ARTR available). One or two “white taggers” were in Middle Field all winter (fed hay with some ARTR available). On February 21, 2010, Kody and I observed mostly AGCR foraging with some bark and some CHVI8, although they were keyed into us ‘big time’ when we came into the pasture with the truck (stuck to the truck for a while before scattering once we got out of the truck). The only time they have seen anyone is when food comes. We observed that a small amount of hay was left on the ground when we arrived. This seemed odd since it had been almost three hours since they had been fed. Perhaps this indicates that they are searching for alternatives to hay now that there is a little snowmelt. Body condition was good to excellent considering the time of year and that they have only been getting 16 lbs/day for the last three weeks. This would seem to indicate that they are getting something more than the hay in order to maintain body condition. The look of ARTRW bark on some shrubs (evidence of stripping) and the use of CHVI8 (most CHVI8 plants moderately utilized) would seem to confirm this. Some evidence of use of the tops of ARTRW but that seemed to be use of dead twigs and little to no apparent use of ARTRW (green) foliage. Kody will only feed these “white taggers” (in the SW corner of the Bull pasture) for approximately two more weeks (until the first week of March) since there will begin to be challenges with driving over the meadows when the snow is all melted (mud and compaction will start to be an access factor). He will keep the hay level the same (in other words, not reduce it from the current 16 lbs/day) since they are heading into their third trimester soon. The taste of ARTRW is still strong (burns in my mouth) but again, how do we know that a burning sensation on a person's tongue is associated w/terpene concentration? It could be another secondary compound. OTHER NOTES: Approximately seven “white taggers” went south this winter and will be bred and sold since they were open. Other “white taggers” that did not go south or to the bull pasture for the winter stayed at the ranch since they were either too young (first calf heifers) or too old.

First Year

The SARE-funded project of teaching cattle to graze sagebrush started January 7, 2011. One hundred and forty-one head of cows, with approximately thirty-five head (25%) having prior experience grazing, sagebrush were used. The pasture was approximately 60 acres and predominately Wyoming Sagebrush, Douglas Rabbitbrush and Crested Wheatgrass. It was originally intended to use temporary electric fence to place cows in approximately 10 acres pastures for one week and then move them into a new 10 acre pasture. Snow depths were between 12 and 18 inches when the trial started. This made it extremely difficult to set up and move electric fence. Therefore the cows had access to the full 60 acre pasture. Sagebrush was the only vegetation showing above the snow at the beginning of the project. A water gap on Cottonwood Creek was located on the lower end of the pasture. Cows were fed 22.1 pounds of grass hay per head per day (lbs/hd/day) for the first seven days. This was a reduction of three to five lbs/hd/day of grass hay from what was previously fed to the cows. During the first week cows would eat hay and then stand in a fence corner until the next day. We have created a behavior in our cattle to only eat hay and not graze native ranges during the winter. The cows were also accustomed to being closer to the ranch headquarters during the winter, and now they were in a new pasture and further from the ranch headquarters. This caused the cows to stand in the fence corner closest to the ranch. Both behaviors had to be changed before cattle would start to graze sagebrush. On January 16, hay rations were cut to 15 lbs/hd/day. At the same time we had warmer temperatures and snow began to melt. This allowed cows grazing access to rabbitbrush and grass. Cows began to feel comfortable in this pasture, and instead of standing in the fence corner, they began to graze grass and rabbitbrush after leaving feed grounds. Cows were fed in the mornings and could be seen scattered throughout the pasture grazing in the afternoons. On January 21, cows started to receive 2.8 lbs/hd/day of alfalfa and 12.2 lbs/hd/day of wild grass hay. This was done for two reasons. The first was the ranch wild grass hay was being diminished and alfalfa hay was brought in. All other animals on the ranch were receiving 50% alfalfa and 50% wild grass hay. It was decided to start mixing some alfalfa in with the sage cows as well to help extend our grass hay supply. The second reason was to give the cows a protein boost to help keep nutritional demands met and to help provide a sense of comfort in the animals. It is believed that if animals feel comfortable they are more likely to try new forage or behaviors and to accept these new experiences. By the end of January, most of the area was snow free, and the cattle had grazed most of the Crested Wheatgrass and a large amount of rabbitbrush. On February 12, cows were observed grazing sagebrush. They were probably grazing it earlier, but due to some travel and being away from the ranch, no observations were made for several days prior. Cows were fed, but other members of the ranch did not spend time to observe cattle. When cattle were observed eating sagebrush, nearly the entire herd was grazing it. There did not seem to be any difference between experienced cows and inexperienced cows in how much they were grazing sagebrush.

On February 19, the ranch ran out of alfalfa hay. The cows were fed 14.4 lbs/hd/day of wild grass hay. Winter returned to the ranch on February 24, and cows were moved into a neighboring pasture that had willows for cover. There was abundant grass and minimal sage in this pasture. On February 28, cows were moved into a new sagebrush pasture and fed 17.5 lbs/hd/day of wild grass hay. This was done because the cows were entering their last trimester of pregnancy and nutritional demands would be increasing. The ranch was also curious how the cows would react to an increase in grass hay after grazing sagebrush. On March 1, cows were observed grazing grass and rabbitbrush after leaving the feed grounds. Three days later there was almost no grass left in the pasture and approximately 50% of the rabbitbrush had been grazed. There was a little evidence of sagebrush being grazed as well. Even by increasing the amount of hay fed, cows were still willing to graze range conditions. The first week of March brought warm, moist weather to the ranch. Travel conditions worsened every day, as mud increased with moist weather and thawing ground. On March 7, the feed truck was unable to make it to the cows. With no change in weather forecasted, it was decided to end the project. There were cows in a neighboring pasture to the sagebrush cows. The feed truck could make it to those cows to feed. Therefore the sagebrush cows were moved into that herd. When the sagebrush cows were moved, the other cows were only a few hundred yards away in clear sight on feed grounds. The sagebrush cows were aware that the feed truck had been in the area and already fed the other cows. When they were pushed through the gate, they immediately went to grazing an upland range pasture instead of going to the feed grounds. That is a very interesting and exciting behavior of the cows. When the project started, cows would stand in the fence corner every morning waiting for the feed truck. At the end, they knew the feed truck had been in the area, but they were comfortable enough to go graze rangelands and not run to the feed grounds. The other cows had also been in that pasture for three to four weeks and had done very little grazing in the range that was available.

Overall, cows maintained their weight and body conditions very well. There were a variety of body conditions of cows that went into the project. Some cows were at or above a body condition score of five or better, and some were in the low four range. It did not seem to matter what condition the cows were in at the start of the project; everyone maintained the weight that they were at. Nine cows were selected at random to monitor body condition. Pictures were taken of these cows at the beginning of the project and then periodically throughout the project (see year 1 progress report for photos).

Second Year

Grazing started on December 18, 2011 and ended on March 31, 2012. Forty-two head of cows, with approximately 50% having prior experience grazing sagebrush, were used. The location used was the Southwest Bull Pasture (same location as was grazed in the winter of 2009/2010). The cows were moved from the east side of the northern portion of the field to the west side using electric fence. They started in a 15 acre pasture, were moved to another 15 acre pasture, and then finished in a 20 acre pasture. Use on sagebrush foliage appeared to be low (although it is difficult to see if use occurred just by looking at shrubs at one point in time – more sagebrush foliage may have been used than one observation indicated). Use of sagebrush bark was quite apparent and also use of dead woody branches was apparent. In addition, a little lupine was present and the use level on it was high. Use on Douglas rabbitbrush was high, although there is not much rabbitbrush in the treatment location that was used. The Douglas rabbitbrush that was present was almost all grazed off. Use on crested wheatgrass was high. There was not much, if any, standing herbaceous feed left over from last year, and the growth of crested wheatgrass was just initiating at the time when the animals were removed. The body condition of some cows looked good and some looked fair, while more looked more poor than usual. Agee and McKenzie indicated that they were maintaining condition for the most part up until about March 1, when they started to pressure them with fence/confinement. Cows are calving in late March/early April on the ranch. Grazing started in December, 2011 when cows were in their late second trimester but continued all the way into their third trimester. This could account for body condition falling off sharply in March, since demands on the cow are high at this point in their gestation period. No monitoring data (point intercept) has been collected to date.

Research results and discussion:

Results Factors

When starting in December 2011, the cows had access to the entire field, which is approximately 50 acres. Electric fences were installed in early February to divide the field and to increase stock density. Following two movements, these fences were later removed. The winter of 2011/2012 was an “open” one. In other words, the snowpack was much lower than normal – approximately 60 % of normal in the mountains. From Cottonwood Ranch and around O’Neil Basin, snow that fell in any amount during the winter at lower elevations did not stay on-site for very long. A lack of moisture in the form of snow could have reduced the amount of water cattle received without traveling to the creek. Slicking up snow while feeding, along with higher vegetation moisture, could have been favorable. No hay was used during the winter of 2011/2012. However, a protein supplement was provided to the cows during the last two to three weeks of the project due to loss of body condition related to entering later (third trimester) gestation. Not feeding hay on a daily basis allowed for little repeated observation of cattle behavior and limited the ability to make effective adjustments. The thought was that the standing feed (crested wheatgrass) would serve to meet dry matter requirements and eliminate the need to feed hay. The amount of crested wheatgrass feed (stockpiled from the 2011 growing season) was higher than what would be otherwise produced on rangelands as a result of irrigation of the area. Water was available at Cottonwood Creek. Cows accessed a water-gap on the creek by way of a lane that was created using electric fence. Salt was supplied in the mineral mix, which was made available to the cows throughout the grazing period. NOTE: Two point intercept transects (to determine vegetative cover) were completed during the summer of 2012. However, no baseline point intercept data were collected in ‘control’ (ungrazed in fall/winter). As a result, no empirical ‘change in cover due to treatments’ conclusions were able to be made.

What We Learned

The prevailing thought is that the open winter could have been a cause of the cattle not using sagebrush as much. However, an open winter can result in benefits, such as better distribution of use, which may not be realized during high snowpack years. Another possible explanation for the low sagebrush use is the low stock density. However, we saw during the winter of 2010/2011 that low stock density did not seem to make a difference since the cattle made significant use of sagebrush then. In an effort to try and see the positive in what appears to be a non-performance year, one could say that winter grazing works one way or the other. In other words, if you have an open winter and stockpiled feed is available you can make winter grazing work well without much labor input (daily feeding of hay). Cattle may not make much use of sagebrush in this scenario, but it still results in an economic benefit. On the other hand, if a normal to high snow year is encountered, hay may be necessary to help with nutrition (given that standing feed may be covered), and it will also likely result in the cattle having a greater willingness to increase use of shrubs since they would have a higher plane of nutrition as a result of the relative higher nutritional quality and plant diversity found in hay. Lack of hay essentially only gave the cows one herbaceous option – crested wheatgrass, at a time when it has low nutritional value (crude protein and energy levels in crested wheatgrass are very low during fall. This combined with a relatively low consumption rate of sagebrush during this period resulted in much lower than required nutritional levels for cattle in this year’s trials. That likely resulted in cattle having very little willingness to consume and biologically detoxify sagebrush, even though terpene levels are lower in fall). As mentioned above, hay has a greater diversity of plants contained in it, and the nutritional quality is much higher than crested wheatgrass alone. The nutrition and diversity found in the hay is what likely enabled the cows during the winter of 2010/2011 (year 1) to mitigate the effects of secondary compounds in shrubs like sagebrush, thus resulting in higher consumption rates.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

See also the "Accomplishments" section.

Society for Range Management(SRM) Winter Meeting (January 2010, Elko, NV) Presentation

Kody Menghini, cowboy at Cottonwood Ranch, explained the ranch will continue the project, using ranch cattle on a designated portion of rangeland. He further explained that Agee Smith, owner of Cottonwood Ranch, had secured a two-year (2011-2012) Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Western SARE) grant to see if they can reduce feed costs by getting protein from sagebrush while increasing biodiversity and productivity in the sagebrush steppe using cattle grazing. In a previous, (pre-Western SARE funding) 2010 trial (described above), Kody and Agee learned they need to increase stock density so that the animals are closer together, they can observe eating behavior of others, and to allow time for behavior to change. They found that ARTRW bark stripping (ARTRW contains decent energy) does not affect the sagebrush plant most of the time. There is an informal coalition of ranchers that are testing these ideas, and some exchange information at the BEHAVE conferences. Kody maintained cattle have a far greater capacity to adapt than we give them credit for and posed the following question: "Are we making short-sighted diet selection decisions for livestock with our current practices while they have the potential to graze “unconventionally” and beneficially?"

• Chuck Petersen and Fred Provenza have submitted a manuscript for publication to Rangeland Ecology and Management (Society For Range Management) related to Chuck’s research at Cottonwood Ranch from 2007 to 2009.

• Beth Burritt and Chuck Petersen have prepared a draft manuscript for submittal to Rangelands (Society For Range Management) related to the Western SARE-funded project at Cottonwood Ranch.

• Project results and an informal guidance (i.e. producer fact sheet/how-to guide) will be posted on the BEHAVE website as well as Cooperative Extension offices. The final report on the project will be included in the BEHAVE newsletter.

• The project details and results will be included in upcoming Nevada Range Management Schools as a part of the livestock behavior section presentation.

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

Potential Contributions

Future Recommendations

Most ranchers in the Intermountain West feed their cattle hay in winter. Using sagebrush steppe vegetation as forage will likely enable ranchers to feed their cows roughly half the hay they usually feed. This represents a huge savings in winter feed costs. In addition to the financial savings, grazing sagebrush-dominated rangeland in winter improves rangeland condition and productivity of the vegetative understory, resulting in long-term habitat and vegetation improvements for both livestock and wildlife.

It is our post-SARE funding goal to continue with reaching as many agricultural producers and other professionals with this information in hopes that these strategies and methods will be used for the benefit of ranch operations and ecological resilience.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.