SIDNEY, Mont. – Producers may have cool-season monoculture grasses, such as smooth brome and crested wheatgrass, in their grazing pastures or their CRP acres.
While monocultures may be adequate as forage, they don’t provide a diversity of plants for improved soil health, nor do they help pollinators or provide good wildlife habitats throughout the year.
If the forage is needed for grazing, a lack of plant diversity does not provide the best cattle health.
In addition, agriculture crops in the region depend on pollination either to bear high-quality fruit or realize higher yields, as much as 25 percent more yield.
CRP will eventually come out and go back to crop or livestock production. Will the soil be healthy enough to support that in the future?
The USDA-ARS Northern Plains Ag Research Lab center in Sidney and Montana State University are collaborating with producers at seven sites across Montana in a CRP renovation study.
The sites and producers include two at Sidney, two at Missoula and one at Havre, Choteau and Lakeview. The study hopes to reduce former monoculture pastures by renovating the pastures with native flowers and grasses.
Brett Allen, research agronomist for the USDA-ARS NPARL in Sidney, was contacted by the USDA Farm Service Agency and “they asked if we wanted to improve success of newly planted acres of CRP.”
Of course, they did.
“We would like to upgrade these vast acres of exotic introduced grasses like smooth brome and crested wheatgrass into a more viable system that would provide improved habitat for both wildlife and pollinators,” Allen said. “We want success over the long term.”
Goals of the CRP program, established by ARS, are to reduce soil erosion, enhance water quality and improve wildlife habitat by converting highly-erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acres to perennial vegetative cover (such as native prairie) that may support wildlife, pollinators and improve environmental quality.
In the past, native prairie grass was not available to renovate livestock pastures, so that was part of the reason producers weren’t able to return monoculture grasses to native grasses. However, several seed companies, while it is not an easy process, are raising native grasses to sell.
Wayne Berry, a rancher in Richland County in Montana and former farm management educator at Williston State College in Williston, N.D., asked to participate in the CRP study.
Berry “happily” provided 32 acres of crested wheatgrass pasture and 32 acres of smooth brome pasture to renovate back to native prairie grass.
Allen first took soil samples of the pastures.
Each 32-acre pasture was then divided into eight, four-acre treatment plots.
Berry said the reason he wanted to participate is he has been frustrated with monoculture cool-season grasses.
In 1961, just before leaving to go to college at Montana State University, he seeded a couple of buffer strips of ranchland in Richland County with smooth brome and crested wheatgrass.
“I seeded the waterways and buffer strips with smooth brome,” Berry said. “We farmed it for awhile, and then I seeded it back to grass. But that was a futile effort. It’s a pure stand of smooth brome to this day.”
The same thing happened with the crested wheatgrass.
“My motive for helping with this (CRP project) is I can see the importance of the CRP,” he said. “The other one I guess, is - we call them homestead fields - they are out here on native range with crested or smooth brome, and that is what it has gone back to on those 40 acres.”
Both smooth brome and crested wheatgrass are non-native grasses.
Smooth brome came from Hungary in the late 1800s.
According to agronomists, brome comes up early in the spring and uses a significant amount of water in the soil profile, before beginning to spread prolifically. Because of its highly developed root system, smooth brome is resistant to temperature extremes and drought, and can easily overtake any other grass or crop.
“I can deal with crested wheatgrass but brome I cannot. I am whipped when it comes to brome,” Berry said. “It just eats my lunch.”
Crested wheatgrass also displaces native species and has a long root system.
In the 1920s, many native grasses were replaced with crested wheatgrass from Europe, and millions of acres of the monoculture have been planted since then.
Monoculture cool-season grasses are a long-term threat to agriculture production, biological diversity, soil health, pollinators and wildlife.
Berry said he wants to see more diversity in his rangelands for improved cattle health, improved pastures and improved soils.
“I’m pretty excited to see what will happen,” Berry said. “I have a thousand ideas for this.”
Allen plans to start with pre-treatments before planting the native flowers and grasses.
The pre-treatments to reduce monocultures include grazing heavily for two consecutive seasons, followed by either using herbicides or burning acres with fire.
Berry started with putting large numbers of cattle on the pastures and letting them graze, called high-density grazing.
“We used a six-day grazing period, typically most ranches would use cow/calf and so you would have lower stock density. We put 400 yearlings on the crested wheatgrass,” Berry said.
Berry said nearly every “plant was bitten (by the cattle).”
This grazing plan is in place for the rest of 2018 and all of 2019.
“It is fascinating to watch. It has been a good experience already,” he said.
Berry put 314 heifers on the brome pastures after May (because of a water project going on), so the brome was a little more advanced.
“We have had cool temperatures (good for cool-season grasses), but the grazing could weaken it,” he said.
If native prairie or other native grasses have ever been a part of the soil profile, then they will re-establish if the proper treatment techniques are applied.
After a couple of years of the grazing pre-treatments, and subsequent herbicide or burning treatments, Allen said they will come back in and seed into the crested and brome some native CRP plantings.
“We will then collect data on climate, soil health, nutrients, weed abundance, seeded species establishment, pollinator community composition and abundance,” Allen said.
After the project is completed, a total of five years, the ARS will have the knowledge to be able to say which techniques worked to reduce monoculture grasses.
According to the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, this research will be groundbreaking for CRP lands.
“Because no successful protocols have been developed to renovate and diversify acreage planted with monocultures of exotic cool-season grasses, our research will present a significant advance for improving the function of these CRP lands,” according to the NRCS.