Two weeks ago, Beth wrote about results of studies done by her colleagues at Utah State University on using cattle to graze sagebrush to increase biodiversity on rangelands. This week she shares a story of a rancher who took that information to heart, decided to teach his cows to be sagebrush eaters, and has never looked back.
In 2005 after hearing Fred Provenza speak, Mat Carter, an Oregon rancher, felt challenged to use sagebrush as winter-feed and as a way to grow more grass for his cows. That following winter, he corralled 150 cow-calf pairs with electric fence on 5 to 10 acres for 3 days and fed them 15 to 20 lbs of meadow hay. The pastures were a mix of low and big sagebrush, gray and green rabbit-brush, and bitterbrush with an understory of grasses. Grazing decreased the amount of brush and increased grass and new sagebrush seedlings.
The following year, Mat used 400 dry pregnant cows. That year snow cover was light so he fed 3 to 10 lbs/head/day of meadow hay and moved his cows about every 3 days. The amount of hay fed depended on weather and available forage. Mat noted that as he turned his cattle onto a new strip some ate grass, others bitterbrush and others sagebrush.
In 2007-08, he grazed rangeland where the canopy cover of big sagebrush was 50 to 70%. Some of the shrubs stood 4 to 6 feet tall. Snow was deep that year, 2 to 4 feet. For about a month his cattle were fed 10 to 15 lbs/head/day of hay. The rest of their diet was sagebrush.
In 2008, he leased some cattle and trained them to eat sagebrush. Snow was deep so only sagebrush was available. He started feeding 20 lbs of hay and over a 2-week period he reduced hay to 6 lbs/head/day. Cattle were in good body condition when they came to the ranch and remained in good condition throughout the winter.
Besides saving on hay and increasing the amount of grasses and forbs on his rangeland, Mat has noted several other benefits to using sagebrush as winter forage. His cattle eat sagebrush even when other forage is available. They also eat plants he had never seen them eat before like stinging nettle, whitetop, lupine and various wild flowers. Finally, when cattle graze sagebrush rather than hay, they require less water.
One important point is Mat calves in June. During the middle of winter his cows have relatively low nutrient requirements. Browsing sagebrush has had no adverse effect on his calf crop and his cattle seem to breed back just fine. He’s found no down side to encouraging his cattle to eat sagebrush.