Controlling Big Sage Boosts Forage, Water

Drought-sparked sage control boosts forage and water.

Sometimes it takes the worst to bring out the best. So, while Tom and Donna Lowry had considered controlling the big sagebrush that dominated their Grass-range, Montana, ranch, it took a near natural disaster to move them to action.

"I had talked about getting rid of the sage for years," Lowry says. "But this drought finally got me off the fence."

Producers throughout Montana and many other Western states have suffered through almost seven years of continuous drought. Worsening range conditions forced many to wean early, feed hay longer and downsize their herds. Lowry found himself in the same position. Normally, he runs 300 head of Angus cows bred to purebred Hereford bulls on 11,000 acres, but he had to shave those numbers as drought continued.

Lowry's herd depends on grazing acres near home and at the foot of the Little Snowy Mountains from early March through early December. He produces enough hay on 400 acres of alfalfa to support his herd through winter. But, if his fall pastures can support his herd long enough, he has extra hay to sell.

Pasture pressure
As drought persisted with no signs of letting up, Lowry pushed his grassland harder and harder. He began to notice that it was struggling to keep up, especially where big sagebrush dominated.

"There was very little useable forage," Lowry says. "And what was there, the cows really had to fight to get at." Cows camped on the creek, stressing riparian areas, and only moving up to the sagebrush hillsides when there wasn't anything left to eat. "I saw a lot of grass country not producing to its potential."

With so many acres of lost production, Lowry finally decided to take action. In 2000 he aerially applied 2 pounds of Spike® 20P herbicide pellets per acre on 200 acres with dense sage cover. He got the results he was hoping for.

"The application cleared out the sagebrush and freed up plenty of moisture and space for grass production. Where I treated, I used to run 26 pairs and overgrazed," Lowry says. "Now I run 60 pairs on those same acres and the grass is growing up around them."

Lowry now tries to treat 200 acres each year with the goal of eventually covering all of his sagebrush acres.

"With the sagebrush gone I also get more moisture downstream," Lowry says. "My reservoirs below the treated areas are catching more water."

A further indicator of the newfound moisture, Lowry says, is that the treated areas are the first to green up in the spring and they stay greener longer. Now his herd spends more time on the lush hillsides than on the creek, and his grasses are keeping up with grazing. Because Spike offers such long-term sagebrush control, Lowry can look forward to more of the same results in the future.

While sagebrush is a slowly advancing problem, Lowry also has his share of high-speed, aggressive invaders. Leafy spurge, Russian knapweed and thistles are pests that continually get Lowry's attention.

He's maintained an active leafy spurge control program since 1986, but he took on a greater challenge when he leased a pasture with unmanaged spurge.

Whatever it takes
Because leafy spurge grows primarily in his rough, mountain pastures, treatment can be a chore. Leafy spurge works its way up steep hillsides and along tree-lined creeks. Using an ATV-mounted spray tank filled with Tordon® 22K herbicide and water, Lowry hit the spurge infestations head-on. He filled a backpack sprayer from the ATV tank and hiked to the difficult-to-reach locations.

"When we first started, we would spend a month each year spraying," Lowry says. "We've managed the infestations down to small patches. Now we can get our spraying done in about two weeks."

Lowry says that treating leafy spurge has increased forage production and helped prevent downstream spread. Stopping seed production is vital to keeping leafy spurge out of his alfalfa meadows, several of which he flood irrigates. Due to his diligence, hillsides that used to be heavily streaked with yellow now only require treatment every two to three years.

"Yearly monitoring takes time, but it's worth it," Lowry says. "If I hadn't treated when I did and kept with it, those pastures would be solid yellow right now and not producing much."

His forward thinking has helped prevent thousands of pounds of lost forage production. And now that he's turned his attention to sagebrush, he's ready to see just how well his newly improved pastures can do under better conditions.

“The treated areas are doing great even with the drought,” Lowery says. “I can't wait to see what they will do when it rains.”