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Late-season Grazing on Cheatgrass: Taking one Scientific Step at a Time

August 8, 2014
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A research project on an allotment in southeastern Oregon has provided intriguing results so far.

Just because Bill Wilber's family has been in the Drewsey area for two generations before him, it doesn't mean that he is stuck in the past. As a matter of fact, Wilber is doing his best to be on the forefront of science.

Wilber, 72, has taken part in a cooperative project between the University of Nevada-Reno, the Burns District Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon Cattlemen's Association and the Harney County Court. The project summarized the findings of two years of late-season grazing on pastures with heavy concentrations of cheatgrass and medusahead in southeastern Oregon. Sounds pretty progressive, right?

"It was a no-brainer to get involved in this project because on the surface, at least, it looked like there was only an upside in attempting to deal with the forage build-up that is created by cheatgrass and medusahead," Wilber said. "We had the ideal laboratory here, truthfully ... All of this area had burned and because of that, the proliferation of cheatgrass and medusahead was significant. When opportunity knocks, you have to take advantage of it."

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Growing up as the eldest of four boys in his family, nearby neighbors were as prevalent as good internet connections back then. Still, he enjoyed growing up there on the land that filtered down from Wilber's great-grandfather, who was an attorney in Albany. Wilber's great-grandfather took ownership of the property through his legal practice.

"I was told that it was an exchange for fees, but I don't know that for sure," he said. "My grandfather and my grandmother ended up living in a beautiful white house where they had a barn, corrals, shop, chicken coops and they raised a lot of rye and hay. So my mom and dad lived there after my grandfather and grandmother moved to Texas."

Wilber never moved to Texas with his grandparents, but stayed behind to tend to the cattle and the land. Now, Wilber is doing his best to make the land and cattle the best they can be.

"Well, I have an incredible interest in the land in ensuring that it's as productive as possible," Wilber said. "Also, it's a family business, so the interest in making it successful for the family is also important to me. I'm also interested in applying current science, which is needed to take advantage of better ways to manage the land."

Part of that is using the Burns District BLM Upton Mountain allotment and seeing how cattle react to fall season grazing on cheatgrass, a nonnative annual grass.

"The significance of this allotment is that you don't have to buy hay to feed your cows," Wilber said. "They have this forage that they're utilizing, in particular in this research project, and you save a lot of money not having to buy hay for all of the cattle that's out here then."

Another part of the project was that the removal of cheatgrass through grazing would reduce fuel loads, lowering the potential for devastating wildfires.

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