Moving to perennial grasses in Idaho's Lower Salmon River country

WHITE BIRD, IDAHO, U.S.A. -- For generations, the lower Salmon River country around here has been subject to invasions of weeds. First there was cheatgrass. In the late 1940s, goatweed (also known as St. John's wort or Klamath weed) began to take over to the extent that many people thought ranching was over. The introduction of a beetle stabilized that weed population.

In the 1970s and 80s, yellowstar thistle was the invader of note, taking thousands of acres, mostly where the perennial grasses had given way to annual grasses such as cheatgrass and medusahead.

Peter Donovan
goats grazing
Perennial grass seed broadcast into weedy pasture gets trampled to create good soil contact. Herbicides knock the weeds back long enough for the young grasses to establish. Here 1300 goats belonging to rancher Ray Holes graze on yellowstar thistle. White Bird, Idaho, February 2002.

Carl Crabtree has been Idaho County Weed Supervisor since 1984. In 1995, he helped establish the Salmon River Weed Management Area, a cooperative assembly of agency people and landowners that focuses on the Salmon River canyon from Riggins down below White Bird.

"Everything we do is built around that organization. That group is made up of ranch people, agency people, and a few others. We saw that a solid stand of yellowstar won't work. A solid stand of cheatgrass won't work either -- it won't keep the next weed out, or yellowstar. You start doing the math, you've got to get back to the basics."

Against yellowstar thistle, Crabtree says, "there was no strategy [other than herbicides]. Many people recognized that the cost of the Tordon would make a good down payment on the land -- it wasn't really highly valuable land. The spraying was endless, and we thought DuPont would own the land. Biocontrol? Maybe. But what would be the next weed? We were trying to find solutions. We were trying to find spraying rotations. That was the early focus -- can we get by with three years, we put on a quart per acre, or two years a quart and a half -- those were the main discussion points."

"Where we sprayed, we had cheatgrass exclusively. The dry matter production was about the same. We changed the weed -- from yellowstar to cheatgrass -- but we hadn't really changed the productivity of the land. But obviously cheatgrass had been there before, and been outcompeted by the yellowstar."

"We sat down with agency people and ranchers. We arrived at a consensus that we had a weed problem, but it was really a problem of land health, and weeds were a symptom. The previous warnings that we had had, with cheatgrass and goatweed, were warning shots that we basically ignored. With yellowstar, particularly after we'd spend lots of money spraying to relatively little effect, we had a teachable

"We had a problem with land health. How do we return land to perennial grasses, particularly in steep country like this?"

"So then we began to talk about strategies. There's a lot of talk about rangeland drills, especially for southern Idaho. The rangeland drill wasn't an option for us, because of the type of terrain we have.

Leonard Lake, who does range management for the Forest Service, introduced the idea of livestock trampling. "All of us were skeptical, but through Allan Savory and others, the trampling effect of livestock was beginning to be recognized."

"We began to do plot work, at first with sheep. Different seeding rates, trampling, combination with herbicides. Where we just threw the seed out, we got nothing, absolutely nothing. And that was at rates up to 60 pounds of seed per acre. The word was, if you just threw enough seed out, you'd get a stand. That was coming from the seed companies. You had to have enough to feed the mice, death loss."

"In our area, we have to have seed to soil contact, and you can't do that by just throwing it out. The question then became, trampling or herbicides? Will trampling alone do it? Will herbicides alone do it? Well, herbicides alone removed the competition, but it didn't allow seed-to-soil contact. The trampling got us seed-to-soil contact, but then we had so much competition that we couldn't outrun the weeds with the seedling grasses, because seedling grasses are so fragile. So with different types of plot work with the University of Idaho we came to the conclusion that our best deal for our area was to seed it, trample it, let it go for a week, and give it a herbicide treatment. Then we would get our best results."

"We got direction from that, which way to go. We found out that the seeding rate was not the big issue. Trampling was going to have to be part of it, and herbicides would have to be part of it. We did larger plots, with yearling cattle. It's not just a grazing project. You have to cut it up more than you would graze it. It takes more disturbance."

Ray Holes and his wife Marianne run cattle near White Bird. "The Salmon River Weed Management Area was trying to get somebody to take on about 100 head of goats and see what they would do on weeds, particularly yellowstar. Nobody was really interested in doing it, but it made me think. We did a little more research on it, seeing what it would cost, talked to some people who had goats. We looked at some different sets of goats. We went to southwest Texas. We decided it would be a good possibility, if we could get enough of them together to justify a full-time man. We had 500 head to begin with, and the next season we bought another 600 head."

"The idea of trampling was attractive. But what about the economics? And yet what is the cost of losing our grass? It was going to yellowstar at an incredible rate. We were putting out about $20-25,000 a year in spray. I thought, why are we fighting a forest fire right in the middle of a forest fire? So we retreated to some timbered country, and did some experiments with trampling, along with herbicide and seeding."

Says Carl, "along Grays Creek we tried trampling with Ray's goats. We didn't think we got any impact, and it was a little too dry. But when we started doing plant counts and actually looking at the data, it made a tremendous difference."

"We have to decide how to get this country into some sort of sustainable position. Cheatgrass might be competitive against native plants, but it's not competitive against this wiregrass (Ventinata dubia) which is a winter annual, it's not competitive against yellowstar thistle. It won't be competitive against spotted knapweed or leafy spurge or rush skeletonweed."

"We're suggesting that the cheatgrass ought to be replaced with perennial grasses, instead of annual grasses or weeds. We're also doing biocontrol, and spraying at the boundaries."

"We don't have any quantified results with goats. To get documentation of livestock effects may be more difficult than with herbicides. We need to change the way we think about livestock and ranching."

Says Ray, "you have to look at what you're trying to achieve. Cattle work well in heavy soils, sheep and goats on lighter soils. Goats seem to fit in well. We had an emergency course in goat herding."

"It looked like a pretty steady market for goats -- seasonally it fluctuates, but year to year it ran pretty steady. It wasn't something that was going to bump into my cow feed. We didn't expect to put on as many pounds per acre as a sheep would, but we didn't have a lot of overhead like lambing sheds."

"Hudson Glimp told me that the fastest growing meat market in North America was goat meat. 'If your family hasn't been here for three generations, you eat goat.'"

"We were just as concerned about the brush -- such as ninebark and others that have taken over a lot of our really good ground, our norths [north-facing slopes, where the best soil and best growing conditions are]. It would take about three or four acres of souths to produce as much as one acre of those norths. We're trying to recapture some of those. A neighbor helped us finance the purchase, with the understanding that we'd try to work on some of his creek bottoms on the blackberries. We're going to do about 300 acres of revegetation work on his property this year. It's not yellowstar, but it's in some areas that might be prone to yellowstar."

"We've watched the weeds and brush take over. We've taken Savory's course and have had some good successes with trampling, and some not so good."

"Trampling's kind of a touchy deal when you're using breeding stock. Finding a way to make it work without abusing the animal -- and I think goats are good that because you are going to bed them some place in a fairly tight area, and you need to figure out the areas you're going to bed in, and make sure that you're covering the country. You can cover a lot of acreage bedding those nannies in a week or ten days. We're trying to take advantage of what's already happening, and add a little seed, herbicide if it needs it to give the grasses a chance, and do it with a plan so that we're not just hopscotching over the country, and being able to control our grazing during the next year on the new seed. If we do it a block at a time, then we can move away from that piece of country for a season or two, and let it get established, and then be able to come back and manage it with the different types of livestock. What we've done we're pretty impressed with. I'm pretty excited about it."

"There are thousands of acres in this country that isn't being touched any more because it doesn't have anything on it besides yellowstar. We created an income off yellowstar. Goats put on the pounds, however nasty the yellowstar. Your dog won't go into it when it has spines, but the goats love it. They do a tremendous job throughout the year. We did 300 acres of combination treatments this year."

"We try to run cattle on the rosettes, and use goats at the bolt stage and later. One mouth and four feet. If we know how to use it and when to use it, we can benefit."

Now Holes runs 1300 nannies in a herd, wintering out, with kidding on the range in April and May. "It takes a special person to stay out there. Our Peruvian herder, Estevan, is a really good hand with the goats. He's dedicated, he's a good hand with keeping track of them and keeping them under control. That's a lot of nannies -- 1300 animals running around the rimrocks is a lot of animals. Goats are a little more rapid than sheep are."

"Kidding takes more people. The goats are pretty good about keeping their twins. We have four guard dogs, and should have more. You need at least one dog with each group. It takes quite a few dogs to do this right. If you have plenty of dogs, it makes a difference to the attitude the predators have. If they never get in the habit of pecking away at them, they do pretty good."

"I like it. It's a good deal. It's like any startup business, with expense and surprises. Last year we had some losses to a cougar."

Posted January 2002