Teaching Cattle to Eat Sagebrush

Teaching Cattle to Eat Sagebrush

Teaching Cattle to Eat Sagebrush

Agee Smith, owner of Cottonwood Ranch in Wells, Nev., and his project partners hosted a field day June 25 with project presentations on the research and results from their Western SARE-funded “Improving Intake of Big Sagebrush by Cattle in Fall and Winter to Reduce Feed Costs and Improve Biodiversity and Productivity in Sagebrush Steppe” (FW10-048). Approximately 25 ranchers, concerned citizens and personnel from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Utah Department of Agriculture attended the presentations and tours. Rangeland Specialist Chuck Peterson, Beth Burritt of Utah State University and Cottonwood Ranch wildlife expert, cowboy and hand Kody Menghin also gave presentations before the group set out to tour the test plots.

Smith was very pleased with the field day. He sees much interest in this research, stating, “If we can make this work, it could be quite a tool to enhance sagebrush steppe habitat and help ranchers with their winter feed."

Intact sagebrush steppe, an important ecosystem in the West, is rapidly disappearing because of invasive nonnative plants, wildfires, drought and encroachment of pinyon-juniper. Rejuvenating sagebrush steppe can benefit wildlife and livestock, but most methods are expensive and require use of fossil fuels. One possible method is grazing by livestock in the fall and winter when grasses and forbs are dormant, a method researched by Peterson that has shown to have promise. Sagebrush, despite its terpene content, is a good source of energy and protein, especially in winter when terpenes are at their lowest levels.

From 2007 to 2009, research was conducted at Cottonwood Ranch by Peterson where 40 cows and calves per year learned that big sagebrush can be good food during late fall and winter. The field day participants viewed a presentation by Peterson about his work and then toured the test plot.

Agee Smith 58

The participants then visited the test plot of the current project to view the efforts of using a small number of animals to train a larger number of animals. This current project is building on the new knowledge acquired during the past research study. In this project, cattle experienced with eating sagebrush and those without experience have been placed in 10-acre pastures enclosed with electric fence and fed native grass hay at half their daily requirement. The project team monitors animal condition and weight before and after grazing, diet selection by experienced and inexperienced cattle, plant cover and costs. The goal is to decrease sagebrush and increase grasses and forbs, reduce winter feeding costs and improve wildlife habitat. The long-term objective is to improve ranch economics by increasing the number of cattle that can efficiently use sagebrush as winter forage and reducing costs. Selecting cattle with the correct genetics and dietary preference will make this biological approach to improving sagebrush steppe resiliency and health a reality.

Challenges faced in training cattle to eat sagebrush include their aversion to sagebrush, neophobia (fear of trying new things), the taste and coercion. Smith says, “You need tenacity to convince the animals to eat the sagebrush, but we have found success.” Burritt has found that “cattle can learn to mix the best with the rest rather than eat the best and leave the rest.” The dietary preferences of young animals are flexible and early experiences can change the body. The body or rumen microbes need time to adapt. Grazing in fall and winter works as the terpene content is lower at this time of year. Sagebrush provides protein that complements the dormant grasses and forbs.

The cattle are provided a feed supplementation that includes a cube of beet pulp, ground corn, soybean meal and alfalfa, grass hay and salt. The cattle are fed straight grain for three months prior to slaughter to rid their systems of terpene and ensure quality taste. Smith claims the goal isn’t to have sagebrush provide 100% of the cattle’s diet, but that it can provide 20-30% of it, augmenting their protein needs with a readily available plant. After starting the project, Smith and his partners found that the animals’ overall body score did not go down, even though half of their nutrients were coming from native plants. He is finding it exciting “to work on something that has such potential.”

Western SARE contracts manager, Kristi Jensen, attended the field day, calling it “an amazing day on a beautiful ranch.” She enjoyed learning about how the cattle learn to eat sagebrush, especially how the calves learn from their mothers.

Cottonwood is a working horse and cattle ranch located in the remote northeastern corner of Nevada. Five generations of the Smith family have owned and operated the Ranch, and now share ownership with Tom and Alecia Maxey. For over 50 years Cottonwood Ranch has offered a warm, western welcome to the many guests who have shared this beautiful place. The ranch rests in the historic O'Neil Basin, at an elevation of just over 6,000 feet. Visitors to Cottonwood Ranch can participate in exciting horse drives and cattle drives, ranch vacations, mountain pack trips, bird and wildlife viewing and retreats. Visit Cottonwood Ranch's website for more information about the ranch.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FW10-048, Improving intake on big sagebrush by cattle in Fall and Winter to reduce feed costs and improve biodiversity and productivity in the sagebrush steppe .

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From the Field