SAREC field tour highlighted hail study, cheatgrass challenge
for The Fence Post
In 2016, there wasn’t much to see during the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center field tour in Lingle, Wyo. “On July 28, 2016, we received a devastating hail storm,” said Carrie Eberle, who does research there. “The majority of the corn suffered 90 percent leaf loss and 50 percent tassel loss. The majority of the crop was in the green silk stage, so we lost the potential to harvest grain or silage.”
With the corn remaining standing as sticks in the field, Eberle and other researchers wondered how they could bring a positive side to such a devastating occurrence. “We were getting a lot of calls from farmers in the area wondering what to do,” she said. “So, we started trying to determine how to get feed production from these fields, and exploring our options.”
Eberle said the first step was to determine what to do with the corn left in the field. Taking it from a research approach, the team decided to explore four different methods including shredding, disking, shred and disk, and Landstar tillage.
The next step was determining what to plant as cover crops to not only protect the soil, but to provide some feed for livestock. Eberle said they also wanted to find ways to recapture the nutrients and fertilizer left in the soil from the corn. “We also had to consider what impact all of this would have on next season’s corn crop,” she added.
The team decided on five treatments, and set out to determine what the economic cost and gain would be for these different options. The five treatments were winter wheat, planted at 120 pounds per acre; rye, planted at 120 pounds per acre, Triticale, planted at 120 pounds per acre, Triticale, planted at 60 pounds per acre; and sorghum, planted at 30 pounds per acre.
At harvest, Eberle said the rye and Triticale performed the best. The sorghum had little biomass production because it was planted too late in the season, and froze in the fall. “Triticale, winter wheat, and rye all averaged more than 1,800 dry pounds of forage per acre,” she said. Forage production cost was the lowest for winter wheat at an average of 83 cents per animal unit day.
“Of all the brome grasses represented in Wyoming, this is the weediest. I think in no place has it been found serviceable as a fodder or pasture plant. It seems to be shunned by stock to such an extent that it may attain maturity almost anywhere. It is not particularly unsightly, but simply a worthless plant.”
These words written by Aven Nelson, the botanist in The Brome Grasses of Wyoming, Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station bulletin, may ring familiar to many folks. What is interesting about his thoughts is that he wrote these words in 1901 — a mere 116 years ago.
Since then, millions of dollars have been spent trying to develop an effective way of controlling cheatgrass, but today the plant can still spread rapidly over grazing land just as it did 116 years ago. After watching “The Biggest Loser” one evening, Brian Mealor and his wife, Rachel, came up with an idea — why not have a contest like “The Biggest Loser,” but make it about weed control.
From this idea came the Cheatgrass Restoration Challenge, which is a competition to see who can restore a degraded pasture, loaded with cheatgrass, back to a diverse, healthy pasture system. “Cheatgrass is one of the most widespread, problematic and invasive plants we have in the western U.S.,” Mealor said. “People are very concerned about it because of its effects on sage grouse habitat, and the changes it makes in the fire cycle and frequency. It also reduces the green window we have for grazing in the summer, and basically, it effects the way our ecosystem works.”
To get this “challenge” started, invitations were sent out three years ago to various entities to form teams and see how well they could do taking different approaches to controlling cheatgrass. The teams took a “back to the future” type of approach, using tried and true methods to control the noxious plant while re-establishing habitat and grazing land. Among the approaches used were fire, control with livestock, and use of herbicides and reseeding.
“The “challenge” for each team was to restore their allotted piece of land to a diverse, productive rangeland using any legal method,” Mealor said. The 13 teams that signed up for the “challenge” drew for their one-fourth-acre plots at random. “The plots were roughly 80 percent cheatgrass cover and less than 5 percent perennial grasses. It was a highly degraded site,” Mealor said. These 13 teams were made up of people from Eastern Wyoming College, University of Nebraska, ranchers, graduate and undergraduate students, weed and pest, game and fish, and extension people.
This was the final year of the contest, and results will be published soon, Mealor said. ❖
-Teresa Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.