Crested wheatgrass, a cool season perennial, dominates acres of rangeland across northern Stillwater County, Montana.
Through Montana Focused Conservation and a Targeted Implementation Plan focusing on this resource concern, producers in that area are working to increase the diversity of plants, which increases grazing management options. Hear from Sterling Ballbach and Courtney Herzog, both ranching near Rapelje, MT.
Watch their story in Conservation for the Future: Grazingland Monoculture Conversion, Stillwater County, MT.
Crested wheatgrass, a cool season perennial, dominates acres of rangeland across northern Stillwater County, Montana. Because of its limited season of grazing use and narrow nutritional window, crested wheatgrass stands create challenges for producers looking to maximize rotational grazing and improve native rangelands.
In 2019, NRCS took a new approach to conservation with locally led, partner-centric, targeted efforts. Rather than a farm-to-farm approach, Montana Focused Conservation looks at a specific resource concern in a specific geographic area based on input from county-level local working groups. “In Stillwater County, grazing-related anything is a huge local working group concern,” explains NRCS District Conservationist Garrett Larson. Extending the grazing season and maximizing the nutritional value of the available forage are critical components to good range management. Abundant stands of crested wheatgrass prevent this from happening.
NRCS reached out to producers across the county who were interested in converting their crested wheatgrass stands to diverse plantings that allow for more flexible grazing plans. Two of the producers who participated in the three-year Monoculture Conversion Targeted Implementation Plan (TIP) were Sterling Ballbach and Courtney Herzog.
Ballbach purchased his land in 1989, expanding through the years to a 10,000-acre cattle operation. He chose to enroll a quarter section of his land that was 100% crested wheatgrass. “I thought it would be great to get out of crested wheatgrass and get into pasture of more seasonal use,” states Ballbach. “Seeding to a variety of grasses would be beneficial not only to livestock but also to wildlife.”
Courtney Herzog of Herzog Farms, Inc. chose to enroll a 65-acre pasture. “This parcel needed a lot of TLC, and we have been working closely with NRCS on many different projects since I started leasing this particular piece of land about fifteen years ago,” states Herzog. “We discussed areas of the ranch that might benefit from increasing diversity of species of plants and of course forage value in general.”
Both producers followed the same three-year conversion prescription with slight variations. “Our farmers and ranchers are really good at adaptive management,” states NRCS’s Larson. “One thing we wanted to do with this project is capitalize on that. In that way we can look at every situation and be able to adjust the prescription that was written for this if we needed to.”
In the first and second years, the conversion project on both operations started with a chemical pass to kill off both the crested wheatgrass and any perennial weeds that were present. “Anything that is crested wheatgrass probably was cropped at one time,” states NRCS State Agronomist Susan Tallman. “The challenge, in addition to weeds, is fertility. Crested wheatgrass really ties up nitrogen availability.”
To help restore the soil’s fertility, the treated areas were no-till seeded with a cover crop mixture. “The whole point of the cover crop,” states NRCS’s Larson “was to not only provide supplemental grazing while this transition was taking place, but if crested wheatgrass did survive those chemical passes, the cover crop would provide competition for the resources the plant was trying to obtain.”
Weed control is one of the biggest challenges of a conversion such as this one. On the Ballbach property there was a concern over the number of broadleaf weeds in the area being worked. “We tweaked the cover crop for year two to strictly a grass species,” continues NRCS’s Larson. “This allowed us to use a broadleaf herbicide that could take care of that problem more effectively.”
Ballbach was pleased with how easily NRCS adapted as issues arose. “NRCS was able to flex a little bit and allow change of seeding species and that was really helpful, to fit the soil and weed condition,” he states.
Herzog had, up to this point, had little experience with cover crops but was pleased with the results achieved through this program. “Grazing cover crops is beneficial not only to the soil, but to the cattle,” states Herzog. “It was good fresh feed for our cattle and they enjoyed it and kept gaining through the hot dry months.”
After the two years of chemical pass followed by cover crops, there is no crested wheatgrass in sight. “We did get out and monitor for crested wheatgrass last year and found it was pretty much all gone,” states NRCS’s Tallman. “That two years allowed for pretty good control of the crested wheatgrass.”
Both producers are now in their third and final year of the conversion which included a final chemical pass in the spring followed by no-till planting of diverse species of perennials.
“Now the season of use can be spread out from early spring to summer to even fall or winter. It should be palatable all seasons,” states Ballbach. “The only problem is -- I need more of it.”
“My plan going forward on this piece of ground is basically rotational graze it, or if it produces abundant hay and we feel like we want to harvest the hay off of it, we have that option,” states Herzog. “It sits in a spot where we can manage it easily, it’s along a creek where there’s water, creek stays open during the wintertime, so I can dormant graze it if want to, so it’s just a nice piece to have some flexibility with and there’s a good diversity of species here.”
“We have had producers say after this project is completed, they intend to tackle more crested wheatgrass acres using this method,” concludes NRCS’s Larson. “We are happy to help and I enjoy seeing the success that happens. It’s what keeps you going from one day to the next.”