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

    Proposal summary:

    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 rarely is 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. Sagebrush steppe is one of the most important ecosystems in the West but intact steppe plant communities are rapidly disappearing. In the Great Basin, more than half have been lost due to invasion of non-native plants (especially cheatgrass), wildfires, drought and encroachment of pinyon-juniper. Sagebrush steppe is critical for ranching operations and wildlife. Unfortunately, many stands are old and unproductive due to repeated spring livestock grazing and historical fire suppression. Rejuvenating sagebrush steppe benefits wildlife and livestock, but most methods are expensive and require the use fossil fuels. Few managers have considered using cattle to improve and maintain diversity in sagebrush steppe. Recent research conducted at Utah State University and here at Cottonwood Ranch show that giving supplemental feed to sheep, goats and cattle substantially increases sagebrush intake. High stock densities encourage animals to eat all plants, including sagebrush. Positive experiences with foods increases their intake. Sagebrush, despite its terpene content, is a good source of energy and protein, especially in winter when terpenes are at their lowest levels. Grazing sagebrush in fall and winter by cattle when grasses and forbs are dormant would: 1) decrease sagebrush abundance and increase grasses and forbs in the understory, 2) reduce winter feeding costs for ranchers, and 3) improve wildlife habitat. Grazing cattle in a patchwork will create stands of sagebrush with mosaics of enhanced perennial grass and forb understory and different age classes of sagebrush, providing desired habitat for many wildlife species. Wildlife is very important to Cottonwood because, in addition to cattle ranching, we also run a guest ranch. Wildlife viewing and hunting are important to our guests. In addition, the ranch benefits by improving wildlife habitat since the federal land agency managers of the land surrounding the ranch place a high value on wildlife populations and their associated habitat. Consequently, the ranch benefits by providing improved habitat on private lands that has a positive effect on adjacent public lands, thereby ensuring grazing permit security for the ranch. Using cattle to manipulate sagebrush will enable us to maintain healthy sagebrush communities as part of our grazing management plan rather than using costly and unsustainable methods to rejuvenate sagebrush steppe. From 2007 to 2009 research was conducted at Cottonwood Ranch, and 40 cows and calves per year were supplemented with grain, alfalfa and grass hay to encourage intake of sagebrush. These animals learned big sagebrush can be good food during late fall and winter. This project will build on the new knowledge acquired during the research study. Cattle that eat sagebrush (experienced) will graze with cattle that do not eat it (naive), thereby providing peer influences in feeding behaviors. We will conduct this project during winter when sagebrush plants are relatively high in energy and protein and low in terpenes. Native grass hay will be used as a supplement to improve intake of sagebrush by cattle. Cattle (50% experienced and 50% naive) will be placed in 10-acre pastures surrounded by electric fence for 10-12 weeks and fed native grass hay at half of their daily requirement. Animals learn to eat a new food when they graze with animals that eat that food. We will monitor the following variables: 1) animal condition and weight before and after grazing, 2) visual scans of experienced and naive cattle to document diet selection, 3) plant cover by the recording of line-point transects, and 4) establishing and repeating photo point documentation annually for each of the project pastures. We will also document carefully the procedure we followed as well as the costs incurred using grazing to improve sagebrush steppe and reduce winter feed costs. Adjustments such as the area of the treatment paddocks, supplemental feeding strategy, stock density, time of year (season) of treatments, duration of treatments, and intensity of treatment impacts can be made based on observations and recommendations.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The long-term objective is to improve ranch economics by increasing the number of cattle that can efficiently use sagebrush as winter forage and reducing costs. Selecting cattle with the correct genetics 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.

    2) Enhance/restore 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.

    5) Successfully establish a cattle-based, biological brush management treatment method.

    6) Provide documentation and outreach efforts to 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.