For early spring grazing, crested wheatgrass is always among the first to green up. But its forage quality often wanes quickly, causing crested to fall out of favor with producers.

Now, improved crested wheatgrass varieties suited to the semi-arid western U.S. could make crested wheatgrass a forage favorite again.

"Anyone who knows crested knows it provides good forage early in the spring, but it rapidly declines - that's its biggest downfall," says Kevin Jensen with the Agricultural Research Service in Logan, UT.

With that in mind, Utah researchers developed Douglas crested wheatgrass, a new variety that has broad leaves.

"Douglas doesn't have the drought resistance of some of the other crested varieties, but it retains its green color and has wide leaves. Those attributes can extend the grazing season three weeks," says Jensen. Another benefit: Douglas has excellent establishment vigor.

CD-II, Vavilov And Roadcrest For producers looking to get a headstart on the grazing season, CD-II Crested is a new variety that is a cross between the Standard and Fairway crested wheatgrass varieties.

"CD-II offers increased early spring growth which shortens the amount of winter feeding time and helps control weedy species," says Jensen.

Other CD-II attributes include improved leafiness and increased spring growth during cold temperatures. Because of its tolerance for cold, Jensen suggests CD-II is suited for the harsh environments some native plants can't tolerate.

A perennial, CD-II adapts well to rangelands of the Intermountain Region and Northern Great Plains that get 10 to 16 in. of precipitation a year. The six companies licensed to produce CD-II are making larger quantities of the grass available this year.

Like CD-II, Vavilov is a Siberian wheatgrass variety that offers early green up, but it is suited to dry sites. Selected for plant color, vegetative vigor, seedling vigor and seed yield, Vavilov prefers sandy soils, establishes well in sites with 8-12 in. of annual rain and grows in elevations up to 7,000 ft.

"Vavilov works well on disturbed sites and competes with weeds. It has tremendous seedling vigor and does well on sandy soils," says Jensen.

For other problem sites such as roadsides or washout areas, a rhizomatous crested wheatgrass variety has been developed. Called RoadCrest Crested Wheatgrass, this variety won't produce a lot of forage, but it can establish just about anywhere and provides erosion control, Jensen says. However, this variety can't tolerate too much moisture or it becomes susceptible to disease.

Always Adaptable Perhaps one of crested wheatgrasses' greatest attributes is its ability to establish easily in harsh environments.

"We have a tremendous amount of rangeland infested with weeds," says Jensen. He says crested wheatgrass varieties as part of the seeding mix may be a wise choice when revegetating those areas because it is so adaptable and drought tolerant.

In fact, crested wheatgrass can be nearly two times as productive as some native prairies, according to Jensen. But he says many producers make the mistake of planting crested wheatgrass in solid stands.

Because crested wheatgrass becomes less palatable in midsummer, it should be planted in combination with other grasses and shrubs that can provide forage for that time of year.

For maximum utilization, he suggests crested wheatgrass should be planted in a mix. In dry environments, he suggests about 60-70% crested wheatgrass with 10% each of Russian wildrye, Indian ricegrass and forage kochia. In areas that aren't as harsh, 30-40% of the mix could be thickspike or bluebunch wheatgrass, with the balance being crested wheatgrass. Forbs and shrubs could also be included in the mix.

For more information about any of these crested wheatgrass varieties, contact Kevin Jensen at 435/797-3099 or e-mail Kevin@cc.usu.edu.