The Cheatgrass Challenge

It’s a cool April morning in Wyoming as many people gather near Lingle to begin their work in what has become known as the Cheatgrass Challenge.  Gray clouds hang low in the sky and the wind rushes through the leafless trees.  In comparison to the previous days, it feels like winter has returned to the North Platte River Valley.  Today is the day when each team will receive their 1/4 acre plot and begin what will be a 3 year project on restoring native rangeland for use by livestock and wildlife.  I am on one of teams.  We call ourselves the Brome Bashers.  There are 5 of us on the team and we all work for the University of Wyoming Extension.

The Brome Bashers. L-R: Mae Smith, Ashley Garrelts, & Dallas Mount.  Not Pictured: Blaine Horn & Brian Sebade. (Photo by Caleb Carter).

The Brome Bashers. L-R: Mae Smith, Ashley Garrelts, & Dallas Mount. Not Pictured: Blaine Horn & Brian Sebade. (Photo by Caleb Carter).

 

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is what is known as a winter annual.  It is an invasive grass brought over from Eurasia sometime during the early 1860s likely as a contaminant in ship ballast.  It produces an extensive amount of seeds, which are dispersed by wind, small rodents, attachment to animal fur, and as a contaminant in hay, grain, straw, and on machinery and vehicles.  One plant can produce as  many as 300 seeds, which can remain viable in the ground for 2-5 years.  It thrives in many ecosystem types, but is probably found most widespread in the sagebrush steppe communities of the Intermountain West.  Many of the ecosystems that cheatgrass has invaded are seriously altered and can no longer support native vegetation.

Cheatgrass seed heads sway in the the wind.  (Photo: USDA Plants Database)

Cheatgrass seed heads sway in the wind. (Photo: USDA Plants Database)

 

This invasive bunch grass can be found on many of the rangelands in Wyoming, but is usually only a serious concern or problem in areas that have been disturbed by mineral extraction, repetitive fire, development, and overgrazing by domestic livestock.  Wyoming counties that currently list cheatgrass as a noxious weed include:  Albany, Converse, Natrona, Platte, Teton, and Weston.  Our plot is located in Goshen County at the University of Wyoming Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center.  The area was historically a winter grazing pasture and was basically used by the previous owners as what is known as a sacrifice area.  This means that livestock, in this case, cattle, were kept here in high numbers and the pasture was consistently overgrazed for a long period of time.

Overgrazing by domestic livestock can create areas where weeds like cheatgrass can invade. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts)

Overgrazing by domestic livestock can create areas where weeds like cheatgrass can invade. (Photo by Ashley Garrelts)

 

After receiving our plot, we take a look around–slowly walking over the area to see what plants are present.  We find cheatgrass (of course), and a few plants of kochia, western wheatgrass, western salsify, and alkali sacaton.  The cheatgrass has been so prolific that it has created a litter problem on top of the soil.  There is so much litter that it would be hard to get good seed to soil contact if we were to broadcast seeds into this piece of land.  Cheatgrass dominated areas are notorious for accumulating vast amounts of litter and the soil surface can be completely covered, like it is in our 1/4 acre plot.

Large amounts of litter accumulate on the surface of the soil, making it a challenge to restore. (Photo by Mae Smith).

Large amounts of litter accumulate on the surface of the soil, making it a challenge to restore. (Photo by Mae Smith).

 

There are many ways to combat the cheatgrass problem, and each tactic has its pros and cons.  It is important when developing a strategy that we look at it from all angles–what are our goals and objectives; what are the economic considerations for each strategy; what equipment or materials do we have available?  This goes for all types of land managers, whether big or small or somewhere in between.  Stay tuned to see how the Brome Bashers determine what type strategy would best fit this site based on the goals and objectives put forth by the study, the local climate and history, as well as what is available to us on the research center. Next month we will explore our strategy as well as look at how to take baseline monitoring data which will help us measure the success of our treatment.

 

Walking through the area to be reclaimed is important to help managers decide the best course of action. (Photo by Mae Smith).

Walking through the area to be reclaimed is important to help managers decide the best course of action. (Photo by Mae Smith).

 

Snow begins to fall as we make our way back to the meeting room.  We have seen what we have to work with and now it is time to put a pencil to paper and make our plan.  Spring is slowly arriving to the Valley and it’s only a matter of days before new cheatgrass seedlings begin to emerge.  Time is of the essence.

Posted in Grazing, Plants, Rangeland Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I have Rangeland Change on the Brain

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Man I am just stuck”? Does every day feel like the same thing over and over again? Ranchers or rangeland managers are affected every day by their natural environment and thus feeling stuck or in a rut may not be fore-most on their radar. In the wide open west where I live, the weather changes every day; sometimes every hour. Natural events such as drought, big snow storms, and hurricane force winds keep ranchers on their toes, bringing new challenges to overcome on a daily basis. BUT what about overall in your grass management business? Have you gotten so busy in your everyday life that you have forgotten to look at the whole picture?

Sometimes its easy to get stuck in a rut if we aren't paying attention to our surroundings. (Photo: CC2.0)

Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in a rut if we aren’t paying attention to our surroundings. (Photo: CC2.0)

 

If we decide not to make changes in, or at least analyze our business it can begin to stagnate. Research reveals that change is very difficult for most humans. Why you may ask? Well mostly because we are afraid of the unknown, we are driven by habits, and many of us are convinced the past will reappear and save us.  All of this is in your head. I am serious. Your brain is conspiring against you when it comes to dealing with change. As time passes your brain creates a map that sorts reality into habits. In other words your brain limits what your see and reality conforms to past perceptions. Your brain also hates change. When learning something new, your prefrontal cortex must work very hard. Since your brain uses 25% of your energy, it’s no wonder you feel tired and even hungry after learning something new.

Its all in your head; I am serious. (Photo: CC2.0)

It’s all in your head; I am serious. (Photo: CC2.0)

 

Using experimental learning can help your brain cope with change. Seeing and feeling new ways of doing things actually forces your brain to make new mind maps and thus habits. So when analyzing your rangeland management or ranch business it is important to venture into the types of changes you feel you need to make. Actually try them out on a small-scale. Go exploring–talk to or work with ranchers who may be doing those activities you would like to try. Build a culture where innovation is encouraged and supported. Take a hands-on class. Ultimately, do everything you can do fight your brain’s desire to stay in that rut.

Experimental learning is key to helping our brains cope with change. (Photo: NRCS)

Experimental learning is key to helping our brains cope with change. (Photo: NRCS)

 

So stop waiting for that great year you had in 1999 to reappear, because it’s not going to. Take some time to sit down and look at your rangeland and your business. Identify some small steps you can take to increase your profitability, sustainability, or the health of your rangeland and then kick your brain in the butt and get out of that rut.

Posted in Rangeland Management | Tagged , | Leave a comment