With a nod to Zane Grey, cattlemen in the sagebrush steppes of the American West are writing a new chapter in grazing management.
The West that Zane Grey portrayed in his novels was a hard-edged place, lonely and rough in a romantic sort of way.
Still is. But the New West is a different place than the Old West depicted in Grey's iconic books. More issues, more people, more complicated. Ride off into the purple sage nowadays and it seems like you're heading into more problems than you're getting away from.
Mat Carter knows that. A commercial cow-calf producer in eastern Oregon near Seneca, he's smack dab in the middle of Zane Grey country, purple sage and all. Unlike others, however, he looks at the sage in a little different light. To Carter, it's a high-protein winter feed that helps him cut his feed bill in a country where snow and below-zero cold are as much a part of the landscape as are sage-choked pastures.
Carter hasn't always looked at sage in such a positive way. So when he attended a seminar on how to train domestic animals to eat sage and other less-desirable plants, his interest was more on eliminating sage in his pastures than on using it as winter feed. That's changed.
How it works
Based on what he learned at the seminar put on by Fred Provenza, a professor in Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University (USU), Carter trained his cattle to eat sagebrush by creating strips in a sage-choked pasture with electric fence.
According to Provenza, grazing sagebrush works best in late fall and winter. That's because sage contains secondary compounds called terpenes, which serve, among other things, to repel grazing. Terpene levels are lowest in late fall and winter, making the sage reasonably palatable to cattle.
“We know that rumen microbes can adapt to terpenes,” Provenza says, “but I think there are a lot of changes that are occurring that are helping those animals to better use the sage — getting familiar with the flavor, getting their bodies familiar with whatever it needs to do to detoxify and get rid of the compounds. It seems like over two weeks to a month, they really get enthused about eating the stuff, if they've got decent alternatives in the form of supplement. They go from not wanting to touch it to just devouring the plant.”
Unless it's an unusually snowy winter, which happened two years ago, Carter's pastures have standing forage as well as sagebrush. So when he began training his cows to eat sagebrush four winters ago, he fenced his pastures in tight strips with electric fence and provided from 5-15 lbs. of hay/cow, depending on weather, available forage and cow condition. With a high stocking rate, the cows began to sample the sage and other less-desirable plants like bitter brush and rabbit brush, and found they could eat it.
Initially, Carter says, the cattle didn't know sagebrush was a food source. However, once they acclimated to the brush, they ate it just fine.
“They eat both the leaves and the bark on the sagebrush, especially the bark on the big, old stuff. You'll see a cow chewing on a big strip of bark that's 12-18 in. long.” The cattle seem to prefer rabbit brush and bitter brush more than sage, Carter says, and seem to like the low sage better than big sage.
And, they continue to eat sagebrush after their initial acclimation and training. “A couple of years ago, when I opened up a new strip, there were cattle grazing grass, bitter brush and sagebrush as they moved into it, which told me they weren't eating off the grass, then going to the bitter brush, then going to the sagebrush.”
This past winter, he leased a ranch and saw the same thing on a different piece of country.
“This year, we didn't fence them up tight because it's rougher country and it wasn't really feasible. The cattle ate a lot of brush without being fenced up tight, which I think was pretty important while I was training them — fencing them up pretty tight and giving them a new strip every one to three days,” he says. What's more, now it seems the cows have more of an open mind about what they eat and he's seen them try other less-desirable plants, like mountain mahogany.
Not everyone who has tried this approach has had Carter's success. He says he's talked with other ranchers who haven't had as much luck. The key, Provenza says, is to fence the cattle in tight, keep stocking rates high, and provide some hay or other supplement to balance out the diet and allow the rumen microbes and the rest of the body to adjust.
On top of that, Carter says he calves in June, which he thinks is important. His cows have lower nutritional requirements during the winter because they're in their second trimester and can manage on a maintenance diet. “I think this would be really tough to do with a February- or March-calving cow, and probably would be detrimental,” he says. That's because an earlier-calving cow is in her third trimester during the winter and has higher nutritional requirements.
Carter turns out on winter pasture in December and January, so his cows have the opportunity to eat sagebrush and other less-desirable plants all winter. The cost savings are significant, he says.
“Pitching hay, you're looking at about $1/day/cow,” he says. “Protein supplementation is probably 25¢-75¢/cow. If you can get by with what God provides out there on the landscape, you can cut costs quite a bit.”
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Cattle as landscape architects
Carter says it's difficult to say what an exact stocking rate should be because it depends on the goal. Initially, his intent in training cattle to eat sagebrush was to knock it back as much as possible so he could grow more grass.
“Four or five years ago, I thought brush was a big competition to the grass and I was just trying to grow more grass. I thought if I could eliminate or stunt the brush, I could grow more grass. I've been able to do that,” he says.
But now he realizes what a tremendous feed source the sagebrush is, especially for protein, plus the need to enhance range biodiversity. So he tries to leave some sage standing, depending on his goals for each pasture. He doesn't have sage grouse, but does try to manage pastures for both wildlife and cattle. So he'll leave big, mature sagebrush in some pastures for deer habitat, for example, and take more sage in pastures where deer aren't as prevalent.
Come springtime, the grazed sage pastures respond wonderfully, Provenza says. “When you go in there and remove or reduce competition from sagebrush, you get a wonderful flush of grass and . You get this tremendous increase in biodiversity in plants.”
That's beneficial for everything, wildlife and domestic animals alike. In fact, Provenza says USU has a research project underway in south-central Utah that's showing sage grouse prefer heavily grazed areas as brood-rearing habitat.
Carter says the sagebrush benefits, as well.
“In places where all the adult sagebrush has been knocked back, I've noticed there are lots of seedlings that come back,” he says. “I think it's because the cows tromp a lot of seed in and eliminate the competition; it allows a window of opportunity for younger stuff to come in.”
You can adjust grazing pressure depending on your landscape view, Carter says. “It's a great tool for modifying the landscape if you have a goal you want to hit. It's not going to be easy to hit that goal every time, but it is attainable.” ?