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Sagebrush: Bane of the range or valuable winter feed?

Monica Gokey for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 August 2019
Cattle grazing sagebrush

To a forage-hungry cow, the great sagebrush sea of the West embodies the famous paraphrasing of a Coleridge quotation: water, water, everywhere – but not a drop to drink.

A handful of ranchers, though, are unlocking the secret to extracting forage value from sage. It chiefly involves a learning curve on behalf of the cow. Beyond that, the payoff seems to stick.

Fred Provenza is a behavioral ecologist and professor emeritus at Utah State University. He’s spent his career doing diet selection studies. And the verdict? Animal diets are very diverse.

Although sagebrush is common forage for wild animals, it’s a harder sell on livestock.

“Sagebrush produces a tremendous amount of these compounds called terpenes,” Provenza explains. Terpenes are what give sagebrush its distinct aroma (it smells vaguely like Vicks VapoRub), but terpenes are toxic to animals in high quantities. Provenza says the upper limit of sagebrush intake is around 30 percent of an animal’s diet.

Luckily for producers, the concentration of terpenes in sagebrush fluctuates seasonally.

“Terpenes are highest in the spring and summer, so animals have to eat less then. As you go into fall and winter, the concentrations of terpenes decline,” Provenza says. That timing coincides with the highest feed bills for most cattle operations, making sagebrush an attractive forage for lowering winter feed costs – that is, if you can get cows to eat it.

Studies Provenza did were aimed at making sagebrush a part of cattle’s winter diet. (That’s the low-terpene phase.)

“We were learning that appetizers of some plants really help animals to use other plants,” he explains. “One of those relationships was between bitterbrush and sagebrush.”

Bitterbrush (also called antelope brush) is high in tannins, and sagebrush is high in terpenes. Provenza’s team found that the tannins seemed to bind up the terpenes, which allowed cattle to eat more sagebrush.

In other words, “If those animals had an appetizer of bitterbrush, they can use more sagebrush,” Provenza says. It was actually a sequence. For Provenza, it was also a eureka moment.

Eastern Oregon rancher Mat Carter of Crown Cattle Company met Provenza at a Ranching for Profit seminar more than a decade ago. When he heard him talk about grazing sagebrush, Carter thought he’d give it a try.

It was a success.

It depends on the year, but Carter estimates sagebrush can amount to a quarter to a third of his herd’s diet some winters.

Carter points to the timing of calving season as a major part of why grazing sage has worked so well for him.

“We calve in May and June, so in the winter the cows’ nutritional requirements are lower than a traditional cow that calves in February or March,” he says. “Because our cows are in their second trimester going through the winter, their nutritional needs are lower.”

Carter guesses it was 12 to 15 years ago he first tried getting his cows to eat sagebrush.

“We tried a lot of things to see what would happen,” Carter remembers. Cows were hot-fenced onto range with sagebrush while also being fed hay.

“We electric-fenced them up tight – maybe up to 100 cows to the acre – and we moved them.” Carter says he tried all kinds of patterns: moving the herd once a day, twice a day, every other day.

The herd was being fed about half to three-quarters of a full hay ration. “So they were a little more hungry and trying different stuff,” he adds.

Some of getting the cows to eat sagebrush was trial and error, too. Carter noticed the cows were more apt to try sagebrush if there was snow on the ground.

Cattle grazing sagebrush

“Most of the sagebrush (on the ranch) has been hedged back more than I want now. I don’t try to force them to graze it anymore,” he says. “But I do like them to graze it because of the added protein in their diet, and some studies suggest it has an anti-parasitic effect.”

Carter doesn’t need to hot-fence his cattle anymore. Eating sagebrush is a behavior his herd has retained without any added input on his part.

Although his own brush has been eaten down, Carter’s been able to find sagebrush stands on nearby ranches. Some of his neighbors still view sagebrush the way Carter used to – a giant weed that saps nutrients from the soil – and a couple of them have been happy to have his cows knock the brush back.

Provenza is quick to point out that cows grazing sagebrush isn’t just good for winter feed bills – it’s good for the land, too.

He says the West likely has more sagebrush than it did pre-settlement. The West was overgrazed when livestock was first introduced to North America. When grasses got eaten down over and over again, sagebrush outcompeted grasses over time. Grazing sagebrush probably helps restore the range to a mosaic of different forages that’s likely a truer representation of its historic norm.

Plus, eating a diverse diet is good for cattle, and it’s an essential behavior for them, Provenza says.

“An animal’s cells and organ systems are able to send different signals that allow it to like a food as a function of what its body needs,” he says, meaning that animals (and people, for that matter) often crave the foods their body is asking for. Provenza calls this a flavor-feedback relationship, and it’s a foundation of wholesome nutrition.

Provenza likens wholesome nutrition to a three-legged stool. In his new book, Nourishment, he describes those three legs as flavor-feedback relationships, healthy plant diversity to meet nutritional needs and the socio-cultural influence on eating. (For cows, that’s the influence of learning from an animal’s mother and herdmates.)

Another notable flavor-feedback sequence in cattle relates to bloat. When cattle eat too much of a bloat-causing plant, like clovers or alfalfa, they’ll deliberately seek out high-tannin forages like sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil to alleviate those symptoms. It goes without saying cattle can’t do this for themselves in a monoculture-type pasture setting.

Provenza takes the stance that cows already know how to eat. But they’re like people: If they become acclimated to a homogenous diet, it takes some “unlearning” (and new learning) to accustom the palate to different forages.

In addition to Carter’s tips, Provenza says ranchers could try spraying sagebrush with a little molasses to encourage cows to take a nibble. He also cautions against starving them. “Cattle need to be in good body condition to become more adventurous eaters,” Provenza says.

Since animals are hard-wired to like different foods as a function of what the body needs, putting sagebrush on the menu isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound.

“Animals like variety in their diet; there’s no question about that,” Provenza says.

When he puts it that way, cattle don’t seem so different from us… do they? end mark

PHOTO 1: After teaching the cows to graze sagebrush more than a decade ago, Mat Carter’s herd has retained the behavior without any added input.

PHOTO 2: The sagebrush is routinely grazed for winter feed – so much so that the sagebrush is knocked back beyond what Carter would prefer. Photos courtesy of Mat Carter, Crown Cattle Company.

Monica Gokey is a freelance writer and livestock producer based in Idaho.