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In Search of Fescue

No story about ranching would be complete without mention of two elements, generically unrelated yet closely coupled to ranching’s origin beginning in the late 1800s and its dominating role into the 21st century. Old texts and oral history serve as background.

One component is an ancient grass that provided year-round nutrition for millions of bison through the centuries; the other, a weather phenomenon unique to the eastern slopes of the Rockies — the chinook.

The richness of rough fescue, a nutritious perennial bunchgrass, remains the source of extended grazing into late fall and early winter for many ranches. Fescue’s existence became the lifeblood of many foothills ranching operations. Fescue, by nature, is much more than a simple bunch grass. In the words of Sarah Green, Mount Sentinel Ranch, in an article titled Ranchers Explain Pasture Strategies (2012): “Our fescue grass is like gold. You have to be careful with it. Fescue grasslands have to be managed in a certain way.”

Sometimes called prairie wool because of the woven pattern it forms in dense mats when dry, the hardy grass cures on the stem and retains much of its nutrition above ground after maturity. The above-ground cache of protein and energy sustains both domestic and wild grazers and limits ranchers’ feed costs. Clay Chattaway of the Bar S Ranch, west of Nanton, depends on fescue grasslands. Preservation of native range remains the primary reason ranchers tailor grazing management practices to individual operations. Many ranches across the foothills do not provide additional feed until March and April, and then only to keep cattle out of pastures during a vulnerable growth period. Grazing management, including care of riparian areas of the watershed, along with conservation of wildlife become passions. Without proper care, grass invaders like timothy and tame grass, weeds and brush encroach upon natural range challenging rough fescue and other native grasses, limiting winter feeding capability. Gains on properly managed fescue can reach four pounds per day.

The chinook belt along the face of the Rocky Mountain foothills in southwestern Alberta incorporates significant tracts of remaining fescue prairie. Warm summers and mild winters characterize the chinook climate with mean annual temperatures of approximately 3.5 C. Summer temperatures hover around 14 C and winter temperatures around -8 C. Annual precipitation ranges between 400 and 450 mm. The grassland community is dominated by rough fescue with lesser quantities of Parry’s oatgrass, June grass, and wheat grass. Forbs are abundant and often include yellow bean, sticky geranium, bedstraw, and chickweed. Drier sites have an increased amount of needle-and-thread grass. Moist sites along stream banks, north-facing slopes, and seepage sites support shrub communities dominated by snowberry, rose, saskatoon, and silverberry. White-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, coyote, rabbit, ground squirrel, sage grouse, elk, moose and duck are common in the region.

Outside interest in the importance of fescue prairie is exemplified by work conducted through organizations like the Glenbow Ranch Park Foundation. With assistance from Shell Canada, the foundation established the Shell Foothills Fescue Research Institute at the Glenbow Ranch site adjacent to Cochrane. According to the foundation, rough fescue is part of this endangered ecosystem. The 1,435-hectare Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park encompasses one of the largest remaining areas of native grasslands in the province. The institute’s research effort is aimed at determining how fescue can assist in land reclamation. As well, they plan to promote the use of fescues for lawns near the park because they require next to no water.

Rough fescue was designated Alberta’s grass emblem on April 30, 2003, due to the efforts of another environmental steward, the Prairie Conservation Forum. Three species of rough fescue: northern rough fescue (F. altaica), mountain rough fescue (F. campestris), and plains rough fescue (F. hallii) are symbolic of Alberta’s natural diversity as you move from the plains to the foothills, and into the mountains. Francis Gardner, a longtime rancher and environmental steward of foothill rangelands said, “There is a spirit to this land.” Fescue typifies the spirit.

Moving east, the beauty and resilience of mixed-grass prairie is captured in the amazing diversity of species. Over 150 species of plants, each adapted in its own way to the extremes of temperature, variation in precipitation, effects of fire, consequence of grazing, topography, and nature of the soil determine the mix of plants. In areas with well-drained soils, drought-tolerant grasses such as western wheatgrass and blue grama may grow within metres of areas dominated by little bluestem, a grass requiring more moisture. It is impossible to calculate the value of prairie species and what they may hold for future crops, medicines and other products (Nature

Native rangelands originally covered about 61 million hectares, but now only occupy about 20 per cent of its natural habitat. With the exception of extreme southeastern Alberta, the grasslands of southern Alberta are located in the South Saskatchewan River watershed, which comprises just four per cent of Alberta’s land area. As much as 40 per cent of the headwaters of the South Saskatchewan River basin are located on private land — including many of Alberta’s ranches.

Fescue prairie occupies a moister environment than mixed grass prairie and has a greater abundance of species. On average, fescue prairie produces twice as much forage as the most productive mixed grass prairie. It can be found on isolated hill complexes of the Milk River Ridge, Cypress Hills, Touchwood Hills and the Manitoba Escarpment. Fescue prairie is the prominent grassland in the Aspen Parkland, except in southeast Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba where mixed grass prairie shares aspen groves. Once extending over 255,000 square kilometres in the Prairie provinces, less than five per cent of the original fescue prairie remains.

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Photo Credit: Lee Gunderson

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