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Know Your Plants to Prevent Overgrazing on Native Range

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Many land managers go into the fall and winter months thinking they have plenty of standing vegetation for livestock forage and wildlife habitat in their native rangeland areas. However, many managers become disappointed in the true quantity and quality of the vegetation, resulting in a need to supplement livestock and/or seeing fewer wildlife in the area.

Not All Native Rangeland Is Equal

Different soil types and past management can cause variation in species composition and structure within a field, on a specific property, and more noticeably from neighbor to neighbor. It is critical for natural resource managers to know what common plants are present on their property and whether the plants are beneficial to their operation (livestock, wildlife, hay, etc.). As a manager looks out over an area, the area may appear to contain plenty of waist-high forage for cattle, but in reality the vegetation might be a lower-quality imitation of something much better.

Watch Out for Bluestem

For example, the low quality forage brooms-edge bluestem looks similar to the higher quality little bluestem.

However, cattle only eat mature brooms-edge bluestem if they are forced to eat it due to its low palatability and course texture. By the time cattle graze it, they will have overutilized the preferred herbaceous (grasses and forbs) forages in the native rangeland plant community.

Little bluestem is considered one of the big four desirable grasses (little bluestem, Indiangrass, big bluestem and switchgrass) in the Great Plains for its livestock and wildlife value. In the spring, little bluestem can have crude protein levels higher than 20 percent. Once little bluestem matures, crude protein levels can drop as low as 4 percent, but cattle still graze it over broomsedge bluestem. Due to little bluestem’s palatability, cattle select it over many other grasses, potentially causing its abundance to decline over time if a manager is not careful with grazing management.

Overgrazing Reduces Best Plants

Overgrazing of the more palatable grasses and forbs can lead to an increase in less desirable species such as three-awn and bitter sneezeweed. Years of heavy continuous grazing eventually weaken preferred plants to the point where root reserves are not able to maintain them and they ultimately die.

These changes can also occur if a native grass pasture is hayed then hauled off and fed in another pasture every year. In this situation, important soil nutrients are removed from the area over time, robbing the plant of what it needs to survive. All too often, these slow changes in the plant community go unnoticed while the preferred plants decline.

Little Broomstem (left) and Broomsedge Bluestem (right)Side-by-side view of little bluestem on the left and broomsedge bluestem on the right.

Identify, Then Develop Plan

These represent some of the many reasons why it is important for managers to learn the plants that are fundamental to their natural resource-associated operations. Knowing key plants enables a manager to develop management plans that address the specific needs of the plant community.

For example, many livestock managers with abundant little bluestem monitor its abundance and height to measure the impact of livestock grazing. If the plant community is in a desirable state, the manager should understand how to maintain it. If the plant community is less desirable, the manager should establish a plan to improve the plant community.

Steven Smith serves as a wildlife and fisheries consultant at Noble Research Institute, where he has worked since 2006. He received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries ecology and a master’s degree in rangeland management and ecology from Oklahoma State University. He grew up on small family cow/calf operation in central Oklahoma. His areas of interest are prescribed fire, especially growing season fires, and managing plant communities for livestock forage and wildlife habitat.