Perennial Forage Kochia for Improved Sustainability of Grass-Dominated Ecosystems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $149,503.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Western
State: Utah
Principal Investigator:
Dale Zobel
ADVS Dept., Utah State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial)


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing - continuous
  • Crop Production: continuous cropping
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, demonstration, display, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Pest Management: competition, flame
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, public participation, urban/rural integration

    Proposal abstract:

    Background. A serious problem on arid rangelands of the Intermountain West is the ongoing replacement of perennial shrub-dominated vegetation communities with monocultures of invasive annuals, particularly cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). Issues associated with this conversion include: • Reduced soil stability, resulting in increased erosion, leading to permanent reduction in site potential. • Increased wildfire hazard because of the annual accumulation of fine fuel when the cheatgrass dies. This further exacerbates the loss of perennial vegetation. It also increases risk to rural communities because of the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires near these communities. • Reduced habitat quality for wildlife. • Reduced forage value for livestock. Forage or prostrate kochia (Kochia prostrata) is native to the heavily grazed rangeland regions of Central Eurasia (Harrison et al., 2000). It is a long-lived, perennial, semi-evergreen half-shrub that is well adapted to Western U.S. rangelands, including those high in salt and alkali (Francois, 1976; Davis and Welch, 1985; McArthur and Sanderson, 1996). Forage kochia is different from the weedy annual kochia (Kochia scoparia) because of its perenniality, lack of invasiveness into perennial plant communities, and lack of nitrate or oxalate toxicity (Waldron et al., 2001a; Davis, 1979). Harrison et al. (2000) conducted a review of forage kochia’s adaptation, potential uses in the U.S. and potential weediness. They concluded that it does not invade perennial plant communities, but by competing against annual species it can be used to stabilize disturbed sites. This is because it out-competes many noxious annual weeds including cheatgrass (Fig. 1) and halogeton (Halogeton glomerata) (Clements et al., 1997; Harrison et al., 2000; Monaco et al., 2003). Once it has replaced cheatgrass, perennial native species can re-establish in the stand of forage kochia, thus leading to diverse, stable perennial plant communities (Waldron et al. 2001a). Forage kochia has proved to be effective in greenstrips to stop wildfires (Fig. 2) on western rangelands (Harrison et al., 2002). Forage kochia is often the only plant that can be established in areas dominated by cheatgrass and repeated wildfires. Its active summer growth and ability to create zones with reduced cheatgrass contributes to its ability to slow or stop wildfires. Forage kochia is an important fall and winter forage for sheep, cattle, horses, camels, and wildlife in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (Waldron et al., 2001b; Waldron et al., 2003). Preliminary research and anecdotal evidence in the U.S. has shown that grazing forage kochia on western rangelands may reduce winter feeding costs and increase the sustainability of livestock production in rural areas (Koch, 2002; Zobell et al., 2003). This appears to be due to its potential to produce forage in arid conditions with crude protein levels that exceed ruminant nutrient requirements during the critical fall and winter months (Davis, 1979; Davis and Welch, 1985). Therefore, we propose a combined research and extension effort that will fulfill SARE goals in the following ways: 1) Outcomes - Impacts: a. Increasing producer knowledge, awareness, attitudes and skills: There is a great deal of curiosity about forage kochia based on interest at recent field days and inquiries by producers from throughout the Intermountain West to the investigators in this proposal. Producers are requesting applied and timely information so they can adopt the use of forage kochia to overcome the aforementioned problems on lands they manage and graze. Unfortunately, we currently don’t have the answers to all of the questions. Thus, the research aspect of this proposal will provide answers to the most important of their questions, thus increasing knowledge and awareness of the potential for forage kochia, which in turn should improve attitudes and increase skills about the use of forage kochia. The second benefit in this realm comes from on farm/ranch research. The typical model of adoption of new practices by agricultural producers suggests that once this first cadre of producers demonstrates the value of the practice among their community peers, then positive attitudes and adoption of practices spreads in waves throughout the region that it applies to. This suggests that the demonstration of research results in producer enterprises is a highly successful means of increasing producer knowledge, awareness, attitudes and skills that will evolve over time to encompass most producers to which the technology applies. Therefore, not only will we affect these attributes for the producers directly involved in this project, but also for a cadre of neighbors, followed by another cadre in ever-increasing circles beyond the geographic center of the project. b. Information dissemination: Extension efforts will transfer existing and new knowledge about forage kochia to diverse clientele including producers, public land managers, wildlife managers, conservation agencies, environmental groups, and rural community governments. There are several reasons that these clientele extend beyond producers. First and foremost, modern livestock producers in the Intermountain West do not get to manage their enterprises in a vacuum. They must have the cooperation from these groups to invest in and adopt new management practices. Thus, it is imperative that knowledge and attitudes toward forage kochia must be shared among all partners if any member can successfully adopt the technology. For example, most beef cattle producers operate for at least a portion of the year on public land and are dependent on knowledge and attitudes of public land managers to make or change land management decisions. Knowledge will be transferred through traditional (field days, pamphlets, extension educator in-service training) and innovative (web page, satellite broadcast) technology transfer methods. Results will be written into reports that will be made available in traditional print as well as published on the USU Extension web page (these can also be linked to the WSARE web page if desired). Materials will also be placed in other outlets whenever possible, particularly the “Cow-Calf Management Guide and Cattle Producers Library” that is published by the western regional beef cattle extension specialists. This is a very popular resource among Extension personnel and beef cattle producers in the western U.S. One field day per year will be held during the second and third years of the project. The field days will be videotaped for subsequent satellite broadcast. Additionally, in-service training will be provided to extension educators from throughout the western U.S. during the second year of the project to make them aware of the project as a source of information for their clientele. The research effort will include dissemination to the agriculture and natural resource scientific communities by presentation at scientific meetings and publication in peer-reviewed journals. c. Resources impacts: • Land resources: Most of the rangeland of the arid West is invaded by annual weeds and would benefit from re-establishment of perennial vegetation. Thus, the land resource impacted includes this vast land area that is dispersed across the western U.S., particularly the most arid portion in the Intermountain region. As described previously, this impact would spread through time from the work accomplished during this project on the land managed by the cooperators. • Human Resources: The human resources impacted include most of the population of the same region, including livestock producers, land managers, wildlife managers, and inhabitants of rural communities.  The impact for livestock producers would be increased economic and ecological sustainability because of a more stable source of nutrients for livestock from the perennial forage that replaces annual weeds, which provide a temporally variable and thus undependable source of forage.  The impact for land managers will be increased ecosystem sustainability on the land they are charged with managing because perennial plant communities will be more diverse and stable, leading to improved ecosystem function. For example, the ability of the vegetation to protect the soil from erosion will increase.  The impact for wildlife managers will derive from the perennial plant communities providing a more stable and properly functioning ecosystem that will provide better habitat for the wildlife they are charged with managing. These benefits should accrue for both game and non-game species.  The impact on inhabitants of rural communities comes most directly from protection of those communities from the vagaries of wildfire. Forage kochia greenstrips provide the potential to prevent communities from being over-swept and destroyed by a wildfire. Additionally, the control of wildfires will reduce health risks associated with air-borne pollutants from fires by reducing fire size and intensity. Additionally, rural communities will benefit from improved municipal water yield and quality from watersheds that are more functional because of improved ecosystem health associated with conversion of annual plant communities to perennial species. Finally, rural communities that are economically dependent on ranching enterprises and wildlife hunting enterprises will benefit from economic stimulation of those enterprises as described above. In fact, these impacts should extend to large urban metropolitan areas as well. Evidence of this need is highly apparent at the time of this writing because the major news of the moment is the destructive force of the wildfires ravaging southern California. Forage kochia greenstrips could protect urban centers in the Intermountain West, such as Las Vegas, Reno, the Wasatch Front, and Boise, from similar tragedy. • Livestock and wildlife resources: Improved nutritional status, health, well-being, and survival would accrue to animals afforded the opportunity to graze more stable and diverse plant communities. d. Economic and quality of life impacts: Economic impacts for livestock producers include improved profitability in livestock enterprises. An improved supply of nutrients from perennial forages will lead to improved animal performance, with a concomitant increase in gross sales. This will be accrued with on-farm/ranch resources, thus leading to reduced cash feed costs for supplemental nutrients. Improved wildlife populations because of better habitat should contribute for improved opportunities for producers by providing the opportunity to diversify into wildlife enterprises, such as game hunting. Increased quality of life for producers should include improved profit and reduced time and labor commitments to livestock enterprises. Impacts for land managers include reduced costs for fire control and fire rehabilitation. This in turn is an economic impact for all taxpayers because of tax support for the land management agencies. Improved quality of life for rural community inhabitants include better yield and quality of water, cleaner air to breathe, and reduced fire control costs. Finally, improved quality of life can accrue for the entire population through improved landscape aesthetics. 2) Producer involvement: One of the producer cooperators, Bob Adams, has grown and utilized forage kochia for several years (Fig. 3). He came to the investigators offering to cooperate in research to improve knowledge about management and use of forage kochia. His ranch in Box Elder County, Utah, has been the site of previous and present forage kochia research. Thus, he has been involved from before the conception of this project, and is keenly interested in continued involvement from planning, through research trials, and into extension efforts, such as hosting field days. The other producer cooperators, Darrell Johnson and the members of the grazing association that graze the Grantsville Soil Conservation District (SCD) land, do not have direct experience with forage kochia, but are aware of the potential advantages and want to gain knowledge and experience with it. The investigators and these cooperators have been directly interacting in planning the research and extension efforts proposed herein. They have agreed to be involved, including providing land and cattle, execution of the research and dissemination of results. The producers using the Grantsville SCD land are very supportive and feel the project has great value because it is designed on a landscape scale, with each pasture containing over 150 acres and supporting 20 or more cows. Additionally, the City of Grantsville is interested because the soil conservation district land involved in this proposal surrounds the city on three sides and has been the site of historical wildfires that threatened the city. Thus, they are supportive of incorporation of forage kochia greenstrips in the research trials that are strategically placed to protect the city from fires. 3) Project relevance to WSARE goals: We believe that improved knowledge about the use of forage kochia on arid rangelands will fulfill all of the Western Region SARE program goals: a. The proposed research will provide improved stewardship of arid rangelands in the Intermountain West by improving ecological sustainability through improved ecosystem function. It will contribute to sustainable ranching systems by improving profitability. This should improve competitiveness of beef cattle producers in the western region by stabilizing their forage resources and reducing their risk associated with operating in an arid environment. Use of forage kochia for production of meat and wool from domestic livestock and wildlife will satisfy human food and fiber needs. It will enhance the quality and productivity of the soil by reducing soil loss to erosion and by improved ecosystem function that will provide soil building processes such as increased organic matter content. By stabilizing ecosystems, soil resources, and decreasing wildfire potential, it will improve natural resources and fish and wildlife habitat and will improve water yield and quality from watersheds. b. The proposed research and extension efforts will enhance quality of life for producers, rural communities, and others as described above. Enhanced quality of life for producers will come, in part, due to improved profitability. This, in turn, will contribute to economic viability for rural communities, along with other enhancements to rural community lifestyles. c. The proposed research will provide a biological means of controlling noxious weeds by replacing them with forage kochia. This will eliminate the need and desire by producers and land managers to use herbicides to control these weeds. The use of greenstrips also provides biological controls for wildfire, reducing use of fire retardant chemicals and other means of fire control, particularly those that are highly consumptive of fossil fuels (e.g. fire trucks and airborne measures). d. The proposed research indirectly provides opportunities for enterprise diversification. Improved wildlife habitat can provide the opportunity to diversify into wildlife enterprises. Additionally, harvesting forage kochia seed from greenstrips could provide an enterprise for early adopters who could sell the seed to subsequent adopters. e. The need to feed harvested forages or graze marginal pastures during winter is a serious impediment to financial sustainability of ranching in the rural western U.S. The potential of using forage kochia to improve livestock nutritional status at reduced cost during this critical period holds tremendous economic benefits for western livestock producers. We will particularly evaluate the economic implications at the livestock enterprise level based on changes in livestock performance and reduced cash feed costs. Based on research findings, cash flow projections and partial budgets will be developed, including models that will allow producers and others to determine if forage kochia would be economically advantageous for them.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Project objectives: The greatest limitation for acceptance of forage kochia by livestock producers is our limited knowledge of its value as a forage resource. Thus, our research objective is to evaluate livestock nutrient intake and performance responses to rangeland with or without forage kochia. This will include an economic evaluation, as described above. Our extension objective is to integrate this knowledge with previous knowledge about forage kochia to impact clientele knowledge, awareness, attitudes, and skills. In this way, we will address the WSARE program goal of “addressing weak links or information gaps in whole systems and integrating the findings back into that system by outcome-impact educational outreach.”

    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.