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All cows eat grass - with a side order of weeds, please


Sun Advocate associate editor

How about using cows and sheep as gardeners?

They can be - and they are - if the 38 million acres of open range in Utah are treated as a resource to be planned and cultivated. That's what has been going on in the super boonies for several years now, in some measure because the legislature's creation of the Utah Grazing Improvement Program.

The objective was to help the state's $600 million livestock industry while enhancing wildlife habitat and watersheds. However, it's not easy to see the successes that state financial and planning support has achieved unless you know what to look for.

Take a stand of baby aspens at the top of Gentry Mountain on the Wasatch Plateau. "They're coming up nicely," comments Taylor Payne as he examines the thin, six- or seven-foot tall shoots. Payne is a grazing/rangeland coordinator for the state's Department of Agriculture and Food.

Now a person can go anywhere and see aspen sprouts, but what Payne is looking at is a managed recovery of a patch of grazing land and habitat that was devastated by a forest fire two years ago. It's Forest Service land, and the lessee has had to install electric fence around the area to keep cows out and let the trees recover. Elk and moose sometimes view the fence as a minor obstacle, he says, but the cows haven't been eating the little plants.

It is projects such as this that UGIP helps. The legislature has authorized it to invest up to 50 percent of the costs of grazing improvement on private land, up to 75 percent on public land.

Another unseen program is training cows to widen their diet to include weeds such as musk thistle and rabbit weed.It helps to look at the range as a buffet of sorts, Payne says. Like humans, cows at a buffet will load up on what they like most. Cows like wild grass. If they confine their diet to grass, it leaves the weeds alone to reproduce.

Cattle need to be persuaded to vary their diet, and here's how its done. "The rancher will put them in a small paddock that has grass it in," Payne explains. "When the grass is gone, the rancher puts some weeds that have been cut into the paddock. They'll put molasses on the weeds so they're not so sour."

So the cows either eat or go hungry. They gradually learn that they can eat weeds as well as grass. "When they're trained, they'll still eat the grass first, but then they'll eat the weeds," Payne says. That's one way how management can turn livestock into gardeners, keeping the landscape productive.

He adds that the land owners and lessees get a different mindset, too. "They're asking now, 'How can we use those plants?' instead of 'How can I get rid of those plants?'"

Payne deals with ranchers in five counties - Utah, Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan - and logs between 40,000 and 50,000 miles of road travel on the job. From what he's seen on his travels, he notes that the programs technical committee is on the mark when it says "most rangeland isn't overstocked, but grazing is often under-managed."

Don Holyoak, a rancher who is chairman of the UGIP Southeastern Utah board, has been involved with this program since 2006, having served for many years with the Bureau of Land Management's Grazing Advisory Board.

"It's important for people to understand that we're not just devastating the land (by grazing)," he says of the livestock industry. UGIP, by channeling a portion of federal leasing money into rangeland improvement, has been instrumental in development of water systems, wells, gap fencing and seeding, all of which have had spinoff benefits for wildlife habitat.

"When people look at what's being done, they'll see that the ranchers are doing it for everybody," Holyoak declares.

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