Producers seeking a forage that can provide good quality grazing during late summer through the winter months may want to check into Forage kochia, a University of Wyoming extension educator recently told a group of sheep producers. The perennial, semi-shrub plant that grows back each year from a woody base is not of the same species as the weedy, annual kochia plant. In fact, Forage kochia is native to heavily grazed Central Eurasia, and is considered the alfalfa of the desert in their part of the world. The forage is used to fatten sheep, goats and camels in Central Eurasia, Whit Stewart explained.
In the United States, the plant is considered one of the few that can be established and will compete with cheatgrass, halogeton and other annual weeds, Stewart explained. "It is an excellent forage for meeting grazing demands later in the season from a protein standpoint," he said. "Forage kochia can provide 8-13 percent protein during the fall and winter months."
Stewart has experimented with Forage kochia in a test plot near Gillette, Wyo. "I didn't want to recommend it to anyone until I had tried it myself to see what it can do," he explained. He has found the plant provides more protein than grass will later in the season. It has also tripled production on the plot where he has planted it.
Forage kochia can also be introduced into winter range to boost production, and extend the number of grazing days, Stewart continued, and it can reduce winter feeding costs up to 25 percent. The USDA published a report that indicated grazing it can save a producer at least 25 cents per cow per day over feeding alfalfa hay during the fall and winter.
The plant grows well in cold desert-like areas in the United States, and can be established in extremely harsh conditions. It is highly adaptable to saline and alkaline soils, and sandy and clay soils, and grows best in marginal semiarid rangelands receiving five to 15 inches of annual precipitation. It is not suitable for more productive areas, Stewart said, adding that he recommends producers interested in Forage kochia only plant it on winter range, areas where cheatgrass is a problem, or on marginal ground or degraded holding pastures, like weaning, ram, or replacement pastures. "The plant is highly adaptable to a range of soils," Stewart explained. "It will also perform well in drought conditions, and grows well on hot days. It is a long-lived plant that can live 10-15 years."
Once established, Stewart said 30 years of studies have indicated the plant isn't likely to spread into perennial plant communities.
The plant seems to be equally palatable between horses, sheep, and cattle, Stewart continued. However, sheep will prefer it more than cattle. "In the fall, cows will like it as late season grazing, but they won't touch it in the spring, because they prefer green grass," Stewart explained. " About 60 percent of the plant's growth occurs after June, and it performs best if it is 70-80 percent grazed," he added.
Stewart explained to sheep producers a study to determine how to establish Forage kochia. "There are some important considerations," he shared. "Start by broadcasting the seed in marginal degraded areas or areas that can easily be managed for heavy grazing," he said. "The seed needs to be broadcast on snow from November to March. If it is planted, it should not be covered with more than 1/4-inch of soil, or it may not germinate," he continued. "The seed bed needs to be semi-prepared, and most importantly is to only purchase new seed, because the seed will lose viability after a year." Stewart said seed can be purchased for approximately $8 a pound, and needs to be applied at the recommended rate.
If producers are looking to utilize marginal land, Stewart said he strongly advises them to consider Forage kochia. "We need to get more production with the resources we have," he explained. "It is not always feasible to go and purchase more farmground or land. We all have marginal ground that doesn't produce much, and that is the best place to try this. It won't overtake your entire range," he said.
For more information about Forage kochia, Stewart can be reached at (307) 682-7281.