Improving intake on big sagebrush by cattle in Fall and Winter to reduce feed costs and improve biodiversity and productivity in the sagebrush steppe
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.
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 35 head 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.
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 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, and
6) provide documentation and outreach efforts to enable other producers to use sagebrush as a winter forage source for their livestock.
Chuck Petersen’s Utah State graduate research project at Cottonwood Ranch focused on training cattle to eat sagebrush in the fall to improve plant biodiversity on rangelands. Feeding trials began in late October and ended in early November from 2007 to 2009. During the adaptation and trial phases, cattle were supplemented with grass hay and a protein-energy pellet to lessen 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 (sagebrush eaters) and naive cattle foraged together in the same pasture. 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 bark from sagebrush. 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 typically terpene levels in sagebrush are low, and perennial herbs and grasses are senescent.
Interim (non-SARE funded) management for the winter of 2009/2010 (Notes by Chuck Petersen from Saturday, February 21, 2010) –
Started January 19 in the southwest corner of the Bull Pasture (a 113 acre field). It is an old crested wheatgrass (AGCR) seeding with ARTRW and 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 CHVI). 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 2/21/10 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 ARTR bark on some shrubs (evidence of stripping) and the use of CHVI (most CHVI plants moderately utilized) would seem to confirm this. Some evidence of use of the tops of ARTR but that seemed to be use of dead twigs and little to no apparent use of ARTR (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 mouth) but again, how do we know that a burning sensation on a persons tongue is associated with terpene concentration? It could be another secondary compound. 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.
Western SARE Tour
On June 24, 2011, Cottonwood Ranch hosted a field day to demonstrate the benefits of using sagebrush as a winter forage. Thirty-six people attended the event. The morning started with a talk from Beth Burritt about animal behavioral principles related to teaching cattle to eat sagebrush. Chuck Petersen followed with his research results on teaching cows to eat big sagebrush to improve biodiversity. Kody Menghini rounded out the morning by talking about cutting winter-feed costs by encouraging cattle to eat sagebrush in winter. After lunch, workshop participants viewed Chuck Petersen’s research plots and discuss his results. Then, we traveled to the pastures where Kody Menghini supplemented cattle on sagebrush-dominated rangeland. The field day was sponsored by Western SARE. See tour flyer attached.
First Year of the Western SARE project (winter of 2010/2011). Notes by Kody Menghini.
The SARE project of teaching cattle to graze sagebrush started January 7, 2011. One hundred and forty-one head of cows with approximately 35 head having prior experience grazing sagebrush were used. The pasture was approximately 60 acres and predominately Wyoming Sagebrush, Douglas Rabbitbrush and Crested Wheatgrass. We originally intended to use temporary electric fence to place cows in approximately 10 acres pastures for a one week, and then move 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 used to being closer to the ranch headquarters during the winter, and now they were in a new pasture and farther 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 up 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 sage cows. The feed truck could make it to those cows to feed. Therefore the sage cows were moved into that herd. When the sage cows were moved, the other cows were only a few hundred yards away in clear sight on feed grounds. The sage 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-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 was 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.
Remaining Work to be Completed by 11/9/12:
-Conduct second year of winter feeding project during the winter of 2011/2012.
-Monitor plant cover by recording of point-intercept transects.
-Repeat photo point documentation for each of the project pastures.
-Further document the procedure followed, as well as the costs incurred using grazing to improve sagebrush steppe and reduce winter feed costs.
-Make 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, based on observations and recommendations.
-Conduct a second field demonstration tour at Cottonwood Ranch in the summer of 2012 to show how the project is having a positive impact on ranch economics, as well as rangeland biodiversity and productivity.
-Continue to observe and monitor the vegetation response on plots that were grazed during the 2007-2009 research study conducted, as well as showing how the most recent larger-scale application is progressing in terms of plant community responses.
-Post project results and a how-to guide on the BEHAVE website, the extension websites for University of Nevada and Utah State University, and websites for Nevada and Utah NRCS. Progress reports on the project will be included in the BEHAVE newsletter.
-Include project details and results in upcoming Nevada Range Management Schools as a part of the livestock behavior section presentation. They will also be sent to members of the BEHAVE Facilitators Network (BFN).
-Chuck Petersen and Beth Burritt will prepare and submit a manuscript for professional journal publication.
-Create a producer fact sheet or brochure about the project and circulate it to applicable county extension offices and NRCS offices.
-Produce a handbook to help producers train their own animals to eat sagebrush with the behavioral principles used in this method.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Many ranchers in the Intermountain West feed hay in winter. Using sagebrush steppe vegetation as forage will likely enable ranchers to feed their cows roughly half of 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 understory, resulting in long-term habitat and vegetation improvements for both livestock and wildlife.
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