Thursday, September 17, 2015

Do Sagebrush Steppe Grasses Need to Be Grazed?

A rancher in southwestern Idaho and I have been having the same conversation for years. We both enjoy it and we always have something to talk about. My friend, the rancher/cow whisperer, thinks our native perennial grasses are better off when they’re grazed. By better off, he means greener and more vigorous, without old, dead leaves.

Rancher/Cow Whisperer told me about perennial grasses growing in a steep canyon, where his cattle can’t reach them. The grasses are choked with dead leaves and their centers have died. Grazing would have kept the grasses trim, green, and vigorous.

I haven’t scrambled into the canyon to see the ungrazed grasses, but I’ve kept my eye on some non-native landscaping plants in Boise. These grasses haven’t been grazed and the inside of each plant has died. I got a photo of the dead centers after the grasses’ annual hair cut in late spring. The plants' outside leaves will soon be tall enough to hide the dead centers.
I tell Rancher/Cow Whisperer that I also prefer green plants to dormant or dead ones. I’d rather see lush green lawns, pastures, and alfalfa fields than dry, brown ones. When I see big, thick summer grasses bucking and waving in the wind of the Dakotas or the Great Plains, I want to roll in them.

But, are sagebrush steppe grasses embarrassed by their old leaves? Do they worry about their dead centers?

I remembered my on-going conversation with Rancher/Cow Whisperer when I saw a piece by a writing rancher. Rancher/Writer had visited one of my favorite places on the Sagebrush Sea, where management includes restrictions on grazing. She wondered if there wasn’t too much bare ground and if appropriate grazing could help fill in between the plants. As a plant ecologist, I see bare ground and I’m reminded of the admirable tenacity of our native perennial grasses.

Bare ground reminds me that sagebrush steppe grasses grow in clumps so they can use the water and nutrients in the space around them. The plants have to do all their growing in the limited time between the “too cold” of winter and “too dry” of summer. They have to grab all the water and nutrients they can, as fast as they can, from as large an area as they can.

Our native bunchgrasses aren't altruistic. They won't cut consumption so other plants can grow around them. If they left water and nutrients for others, the other might be cheatgrass, which would increase the chance of fire. Cheatgrass is fuel for fires; bare ground is a firebreak that helps protect bunchgrasses.

Rancher/Writer noticed dead grass leaves and wondered if appropriate grazing could rejuvenate the plants. I see dead leaves and dead grass centers and I’m reminded of how well the plants are protecting the soil.

Dead leaves remind me that the material will decay and release nutrients into the soil for the plant to use. When the center of a bunchgrass dies, the dead material goes on protecting the soil, its water, its nutrients. The plant cries, “It’s just a flesh wound!” and keeps growing out around its edges--finding more water and nutrients.

Do our native sagebrush steppe grasses need to be grazed? If we look at it from the plants’ and the soil’s point of view, I don’t think so.

I’ll slow down to enjoy the sight of green irrigated pastures and breathe in the fragrance of a just-cut alfalfa field. Someday, I might stop to roll in the lush summer grasses on the plains. I'll also be amazed by our native perennial grasses. These bunchgrasses grow in challenging country and can do an exemplar job protecting our soil and keeping cheatgrass out of the Sagebrush Sea.

Instead of focusing on their unkempt appearance, let's thank our sagebrush steppe grasses for all the work they do.