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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: range improvement
  • Education and Training: demonstration, workshop
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency, energy use
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement
  • Production Systems: holistic management
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, sustainability measures


    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.

    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.