Looking out across a picturesque span of Montana rangeland this time of year, the depth of green is almost breath taking. To the untrained eye, the expanding grasslands may appear to be heaven for grazing animals, but upon close inspection, mixed in with the lush grass is all too often the invasive and largely unpalatable cheatgrass.
Cheatgrass is an annual grass-like weed that initially appeared on U.S. soil in 1861, debuting in Pennsylvania. Like most non-native species, cheatgrass began trudging across the whole country. It was first discovered in Montana in 1889 in Missoula County, and by 1980, cheatgrass had been found in every single Montana county. Currently, cheatgrass is categorized as a Priority 3 Regulated Plant because of the negative implications it can have on range and croplands in the state.
“Cheatgrass has been around for a long time, but people have started to get more concerned about it in the last 10-15 years,” said Dr. Lisa Rew, professor of Invasive Plant Ecology and Management in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University.
Concern over cheatgrass has largely risen due to the fact that managing its spread is difficult. Cheatgrass germinates in the fall, generally coming up after the first fall rains. The grass remains dormant over the winter, but once temperatures start warming to about 45 degrees in the spring, it begins growing again. The invasive grass is only palatable to grazing animals before it goes to head, so this means it can only be of any use as forage in the fall, immediately after it rains or in the early spring. Usually by late May or early June, cheatgrass has gone to head and is well on its way to drying out.
Cheatgrass really likes disturbed areas, Rew explained, with overgrazed lands being one of its favorite areas to inhabit. However, cheatgrass is also often found in winter wheat crops, as well. Recent research has also found that cheatgrass enjoys warmth, so it thrives on south-facing slopes.
Herbicide usage is the most common approach to control the invasive grass, but it doesn’t always have the greatest long-term effects and chemical control is expensive. Some producers have found success intensively grazing cheatgrass when it is palatable, but even that is not a cure all.
Rew, along with fellow Montana State University researchers, Dr. Jane Mangold and Dr. Bok Sowell, were recently awarded a $350,000 grant through the Western Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education program, which is overseen by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, with the monies set to help fund cheatgrass management research in Montana. The MSU research team will be collaborating with Kyle Cutting of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Jim Berky of the Nature Conservancy. The research will start off being primarily focused on a mix of private and public lands in the Centennial Valley, south of Dillon, Mont., where cheatgrass invasion is well noted.
“The idea in the Centennial Valley is to try and integrate some of these different methods of cheatgrass management and then to also see when you need to seed. If you have had cheatgrass for a really long time and there are no native grasses, you may need to seed. We are trying to figure out that threshold,” Rew explained.
In addition to answering those bigger research questions, the team will also test some more novel management ideas on a smaller scale. For example, Edaphix, LLC, a Bozeman based chemical development company, has a soil micronutrient fertilizer that has initially shown some success in managing cheatgrass, and in cropping systems, integrating mustard seed meal has also worked against cheatgrass. The MSU research crew hopes to look further into these methods.
“At the end of this we would really like to be able to provide a management decision framework to help people make decisions that will work best for their place,” Rew stated.
The MSU research team has been conducting research on cheatgrass management for the last couple of years thanks to a Montana Noxious Weed Trust Fund grant. With this additional grant, the team plans to continue studying cheatgrass for three more years. The hope is the research and discoveries made will do wonders for the management of cheatgrass across Montana and beyond.