Training cattle to graze medusahead and avoid velvet lupine: A new tool to sustain the economic viability of livestock operations in the Western US

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2015: $249,909.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Utah State University
Region: Western
State: Utah
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Juan Villalba
Utah State University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: meat


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, grazing - rotational, pasture renovation, rangeland/pasture management
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity, habitat enhancement
  • Pest Management: cultural control

    Proposal abstract:

    The channeled scablands of eastern Washington include over 2,000 square miles of rangeland with important economic, historical, and environmental significance to the western U.S. for cattle grazing, wildlife survival, hunting, and tourism. Past mismanagement and frequent wildfires have resulted in loss of plant biodiversity and major degradation of these rangelands. Invasive annual grasses, such as medusahead and cheatgrass, and poisonous forbs, such as velvet lupine, challenge livestock operations, and producers are looking for solutions. Moreover, incidence of lupine poisoning may be exacerbated in medusahead-infested rangelands as cattle prefer lupine over the unpalatable medusahead. Grazing represents a sustainable, efficient, and low-cost alternative for medusahead control. However, this weed is very unpalatable at any stage of growth and efforts to enhance its acceptance have not been promising. Livestock may eat medusahead if forced (i.e., at high animal densities), but this practice may affect animal welfare and productivity and be unrealistic for managing large medusahead infestations. Emerging knowledge on foraging behavior, like the importance of positive experiences early in life with an appropriate nutritional context (provided by palatable forages), may change preference for unpalatable plants and turn grazing into a significant tool to control medusahead. In addition, the same forages which enhance intake of medusahead may reduce intake of lupine because forages (e.g., high in protein) which increase use of grasses may reduce the use of forbs. Finally, controlling medusahead through grazing will improve the chances of successfully reintroducing native species and establishing improved perennial grasses and forbs which will restore the biodiversity and health of this important region. We propose to investigate whether a nutritional context created by establishing cool-season perennial grasses and selected forbs (forage kochia) provides the appropriate nutritional context to enhance use of medusahead and reduce use of lupine by cows and their calves, and by calves later in life. Grazed areas will be seeded with cool-season perennial grasses and forage kochia, which will reduce further the competitive advantage of medusahead and lupine, creating a positive feedback cycle of grazing-restoration which will expand the abundance of perennial grasses and beneficial forbs across time and space. This research will provide ranchers with low-cost and environmentally sound tools to enhance ecosystem services, including biodiversity and improved animal nutrition, welfare, and health. Interactions with producers involved in this project led to its development. Producers will select areas for experiments and demonstration sites on their ranches, provide feedback on the results obtained in “real time” so modifications on future experiments can be implemented, integrate results obtained with their “real life” experiences, and present findings to other producers. Thus, our extension and education efforts will provide new knowledge to design grazing strategies and restoration efforts that balance different sustainability goals, thus leading to more adaptable and sustainable production in rangelands challenged by annual grasses and undesirable forbs. The methodologies developed in this proposal have broader applications across similar landscapes in the western U.S., Western Canada, and especially the Great Basin.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our long-term goal is to create an innovative grazing strategy using novel paradigms of nutritional context and learning, integrated with outreach, to restore degraded rangelands invaded by medusahead and, thus, increase rangeland health and reduce the likelihood of cattle poisoning from over-ingestion of lupine.


    1. Investigate a grazing program on restored land, which will provide the appropriate nutrients to enhance utilization of medusahead and reduce use of lupine by grazing cattle.

    2. Use grazing by cattle as a tool to “clean” medusahead invaded areas and increase establishment of perennial grasses and forage kochia, thus creating a positive feedback cycle of grazing-restoration which will expand the abundance of perennial grasses and beneficial forbs across time and space.

    3. Create an outreach and education program to extend findings from the proposed project involving producers and extension personnel in the selection of demonstration sites, research sites, workshops, and presentations.

    Objective 1 (Years 1-3; Leader: J. Villalba). Cow-calf pairs (Treatment) will graze perennial grasses (Crested and Siberian wheatgrass) and forage kochia (“supplemental” improved pastures). Subsequently, Treatment and Control animals will be rotated to graze non-improved rangeland. The effects of grazing supplemental improved pastures on use of medusahead and velvet lupine relative to other plants in the community will be assessed. In the following year, we will test how supplementation experienced by calves early in life affects use of medusahead and lupine later in life. We will assess the impacts of the treatments by measuring abundance of medusahead and velvet lupine in the plant community from years 2 to 3. Results from our USDA-NIFA Grant shows supplements increase use of medusahead by sheep relative to non-supplemented animals. Thus, we expect that the supplemental nutrients ingested while grazing improved pastures will enhance use of medusahead by cattle. We also expect cattle in year 2 to display greater use of and preference for medusahead than Control animals. Since biomass availability and quality will be enhanced by restoration efforts; we expect that cattle will reduce their reliance on lupine for obtaining nitrogen and roughage, which typically occurs in degraded areas with low biomass and nitrogen availability.

    Objective 2 (Years 1-3; Leader: K. Panter). Cow-calf pairs will graze medusahead-infested areas. We will seed in disturbed (1-grazed, 2-disked) and undisturbed (3-Control) areas perennial grasses and forage kochia. Germination data, seeding establishment and forage quality will be assessed. We expect that grazing will increase establishment of grasses and forage kochia relative to undisturbed areas. A funded SARE Professional+Producer Grant is being successful at reintroducing native species with improved perennial grasses and forbs using mechanical tillage treatments. However, the next step is to determine if we can use grazing cattle protocols (sustainable, low-cost, access to areas inaccessible to machinery) as tools to enhance restoration efforts.

    Objective 3 (Years 1-3; Leaders: T. Platt and E. Burritt). An outreach and education program will be established to extend the findings from the proposed project involving producers and extension personnel in the selection of demonstration and research sites, workshops and presentations.

    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.