Friday, October 10, 2014

Watching grass grow—how exciting is that?

     This Sunday, the Trailing of the Sheep parade will begin with a riderless horse as a tribute to fellow rancher, conservationist and friend Bud Purdy. A week or so before Bud Purdy died, I stopped to say goodbye. He knew he didn’t have much time left. I told him he should be proud of his family following in his footsteps on their beautiful ranch and especially proud that he donated a conservation easement on their entire ranch protecting miles of Silver Creek.

     We reminisced about range tours we had taken 50 years ago with a brilliant range scientist by the name of Gus Hormay. Hormay had developed the rest-rotation system of grazing. We agreed that it had been so long ago that people had forgotten Gus’ lessons. I promised Bud I would write this article.

     There are many kinds of plants growing on our rangelands. But basically there are two types, annuals and perennials. The annuals produce a viable seed that shatters, winters on the ground and sprouts the next spring. The most common annual is cheat grass. For cheat grass to survive on our non-irrigated sagebrush-covered rangelands it needs to grow and produce its seed very quickly. In our area, it has completed its life cycle by early June and is dry enough to fuel fires the rest of the summer. Cheat grass-dominated rangeland has a four-month fire season, June through September.

     Perennials have deep roots that survive the cold of winter and grow from those roots the next spring. Bunch grasses are good examples of perennials. They take a long time to produce a very fragile seed. They stay green and therefore unburnable to the end of July. Rangeland dominated by perennials has a burn season of only two months, August and September.

     In recent years, our desert country south of Carey and Picabo have seen more and bigger sagebrush-killing wildfires. These deserts are prime wintering grounds for potentially threatened sage hens that need vast stands of sagebrush to winter in. Once burned, sagebrush takes decades to recover. To save the bird, we need to lessen fires by shifting our plant community to more perennials at the expense of the annuals. Here’s where Gus Hormay comes in.

     Hormay’s rest-rotation starts with a three-pasture system and a three-year rotation for each pasture. The first starts with only fall grazing and is aimed at those fragile seeds produced by perennials. Left alone, few of those seeds falling to the ground would find a friendly place to sprout and take root. Enter sheep or cattle and add wet fall weather. Imagine tall, dry grasses knocked over and stepped on in the mud, a perfect seedbed and a thin layer of soil blown or washed into that footprint hiding it from mice or birds. Lying in a depression, extra moisture will accumulate, ensuring the seeds’ emergence next spring. After fall and winter grazing, Hormay recommended a year of rest. Spring grazing follows this. Then the cycle repeats.

     Rest rotation is far superior to no grazing pushed by anti-grazing groups. No grazing results in large, old perennial plants and very few young plants. Old perennials have masses of old woody fuel and will burn extremely long and hot. When fire comes, it will kill those plants. Only the young plants with little fuel will burn fast and cool enough to survive. In coming years, they will grow and provide the seed to regenerate the plant community. Age diversity is the key and fall-winter grazing is a must for healthy rangelands. Bud would have told you this and often did.

     John T. Peavey is president of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. He represented Blaine County in the Idaho Senate for 21 years and is a third-generation rancher and conservationist.    

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