The Cows Jumped Over the Moon

Before I get to the point where the title of this post makes any sense, I would like to explain my research. I basically have two projects and the focus of each is on cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) aka. downy brome. Although the Weed Science Society of America officially recognized downy brome as the appropriate common name, I prefer cheatgrass (but that’s a discussion all its own).

For my first project, I’m looking to develop a statewide cheatgrass prioritization model. What does that mean? In a nutshell, I’m gathering existing data and mapping the entire state for cheatgrass. The idea is to have enough representation of the state to develop a reliable distribution prediction model. The distribution model will be used to determine invasion status across the state and I will look at overlap with and proximity to critical wildlife habitat to develop the final prioritization model.

Wow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through that spiel.

For my second project, I’m evaluating multi-species targeted grazing for cheatgrass control and comparing it to herbicide treatments. I’m grazing cattle and sheep (alone and mixed) in the spring, the fall, and both spring and fall. Essentially, I want to determine if grazing is a viable method of control, what species is the most effective (or if a combination works best), what season is the most effective, and how grazing compares to herbicide application as a method of control.

Both are awesome projects. Very interesting. But now allow me to give you a brief but more epic description (this is mostly for my own entertainment, so feel free to skip)…

I roam the basins, foothills, and mountains of Wyoming running reconnaissance on the not so elusive cheatgrass. It creeps across the state, lurking in crevices, skulking up slopes, and flagrantly spilling into the open prairies. It softly rumbles across the state like a storm, and I seek to discover its path. Is it brewing? Is it fading? Is it stagnant? In the meantime, a battle is waged at an agriculture research station in the southeast. Thundering herds of cattle and sheep work their way into assigned arena’s (actually rectangular grazing cells) like gladiators to determine their strength and ability to take down the sea of cheatgrass surrounding them.

If I was Frodo in Lord of the Rings, cheatgrass would be the one ring. I’m constantly keeping track of it and ultimately trying to destroy it…. Actually it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, so not really destroy it, but rather keep it at bay. Not the best analogy, but enough of that. On to the story!

The day before Memorial Day I finished up with a spring grazing treatment, and I can fully understand why many grazing studies for controlling invasive species are done using simulated grazing (mowing, clipping, etc.). Let me start by saying, everything went fairly smooth this year. We didn’t have as many cows jumping fences (only a few this year plus one or two rogue sheep busting through the fence). Of course, last year the cows were trouble for more than just their fence jumping. Last year, they were not very happy with the status of the forage in their grazing cells, so they didn’t really eat. On the other hand, the sheep mowed it down. I was sold on sheep last year. They threw me for a loop this year.

It turns out 2014 is a fine year for cheatgrass. To provide a comparison, last year animals were in the grazing cells for about 4-5 hours. This year, to achieve my goal of 90% utilization of the forage for all grazing treatments, they were in for 13 hours. There is a sea of cheatgrass at the Sustainable Agriculture Research Extension Center (SAREC) near Lingle, WY. There were clumps of it growing taller here and there for whatever reason so that it was almost like watching choppy waves on an ocean, especially when the wind would blow.DSC_0607DSC_0480

And the cows slurped it down. A fine bovine wine! And this fine bovine wine was not fancied by the sheep. As a matter of fact, they almost seemed to go on strike as the week went on. My goal of 90% utilization of forage in all grazing treatments wavered on day two, when the cows had licked their glasses about 80% clean, and the sheep were sleeping in it (like a bunch of lightweights passed out and surrounded by unfinished beverages). 70%. That’s pretty close right? Right.

In the name of science (and a very full summer with little room for taking up extra time), I stuck to the 13 hours for the rest of the week despite utilization because, as my advisor kept calmly reminding me, “You can’t make them eat.” This became my mantra almost straight through Memorial Day weekend. Although I didn’t calculate utilization after the beginning of the week, visually it seems as though the sheep ate less and less. 13 hours! And they refused to eat it! I wonder how many children would hold out that long before they finally just ate their vegetables. I would walk by their cell every once in a while (I realize that line makes me sound like a warden in a jail house) in the hopes that if they had to stand up they might eat more, and sometimes it worked. But as time went on, I would walk by, and they would stand up, but they wouldn’t eat. Inevitably, one bold sheep would step out in front of the rest, get closer to me, and stare. It was like she was saying, “excuse me miss, on behalf of my fellow sheep, we refuse to partake in this gluttony any longer.”


Hey diddle, diddle.
The sheep and the cattle
The cows ate morning till night
The little sheep laughed to see such sport
And the researcher sighed at the sight.

All of that to say, I have learned through this project that science with animals (and in general, really) requires patience and flexibility. People put a lot of faith in science, but I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t always as straight forward as we like to think (I personally prefer a nice balance between science and common sense). We do the best we can and that’s all we can do! Hoping to see some more interesting results this year.


  1. Is it not? well accepted that mechanical treatments (grazing, mowing, discing) should be done in spring prior to seed set? Good read, thanks.

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