AoR 11: Barry Perryman, Back to the Future with Applied Research to Control Cheatgrass

A half-century of war on cheatgrass hasn’t reduced its dominance on the high sagebrush seas. Barry Perryman of Univ. of Nevada-Reno says old-fashioned observations and rancher communication have led researchers to a promising paradigm shift: targeting the unique biology of this biennial grass through fall and winter grazing. Barry and Tip discuss classical approaches to field research, an admonition from Dr. Temple Grandin to pay attention to real people doing real work in the real world, and Barry's pathway to uncovering some convenient truths about cheatgrass biology through research in the Old World. They finish up with a discussion of fire ecology in the Great Basin. 


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>> [Background Music] Welcome to The Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host Tip Hudson, Range and Livestock Specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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We've talked about invasive annual grass management on the podcast from a few different angles. But my guest today makes the case that we really haven't made much progress on the cheatgrass problem. It's worth coming back to because we have in the west what some have called Sagebrush Seas where a cheatgrass features prominently and really dries landscape ecology. Dr. Barry Perryman is a professor at University of Nevada, Reno where he teaches and researches range and animal science and has been doing so for some time now. He's also a regular contributor to RANGE Magazine which is a rare appointment for an academic. Barry welcome to the show.

>> Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

>> I will get back to cheatgrass in just a minute. But I wanted to visit a bit about your pathway to being a range researcher. Most people don't leave high school with a conviction to become a range professor. If I recall it correctly you did time in the oil fields in your youth, is that right?

>> Yes, that's correct. I spent 10 or 12 years anyway in the oil field in the rocky mountain region.

>> Was that your first stop at a high school?

>> No, first stop at high school. I did attend college. There were a couple of-- there were only two colleges in the State of Texas at the time that would accept you with the three years of high school or English, so I picked one of those and the rest is history, I guess. When I graduated, we were in the middle of the Carter presidency and there weren't a lot of jobs around. So I went to jobs in Natural Resource Management anyway. So I went to the oil fields of Williston Basin in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota back in the late '70s.

>> And then how did you end up in a range degree?

>> My undergraduate degree was in Agronomy in Rangeland Ecology. And so I just, after 10 years or so or dozen years or so I guess all total. I had to figure out a way to extract myself from the oil field and I just kept here in the call, you know, who's going to speak for the lands, so. You know, who knows why? Why Napoleon cross the Danube? He might have just have been, you know, felt like it at that moment, so. I don't really have an answer for you. I just was pulled in that direction and I had to-- I had really had to get out of the oil field and I had to get into something that I thought that I would really enjoy doing and this was-- this had been it since I was 12 years old probably.

>> Yeah, I've often said that agriculture keeps people tethered to reality because you can't argue very long with nature and she always wins. And at least all the production of agriculture, the fruits of one's labor are worth more than one's pay and that is also, I guess, philosophically and economically grounding. You talked about speaking for the land, how did the oil fields changed you? Was that-- Was the experience there, what made you feel like someone needed to speak up?

>> No, not really. I always felt that way. The oil field was just sort of a, I guess, a turn in the road that I had to go through and once you get into something and then you get a family, you get married, you get a family. You need some stability and then that provide stability at that time and-- but I always thought that I would be moving into something else. And at the time it was mine land reclamation that was sort of one of the hot topics that was going on in the late '70s and the early '80s then we really begin to look into mine land reclamation. And so, that was my first, I guess, dipping my toe into the reservoir anyway.

>> What's been the focused of your research at UNR?

>> In UNR it's been many and varied. I've been fortunate to be involved in a lot of different kinds of things from all the way from the nutritional content of forage plants, to fire rehabilitation, to the demography of Sagebrush stands to cheatgrass has been a big focus the last 10 years or so. But I've really been fortunate to have take-- been able to take a look a lot of different interesting things, so that kind of feeds my ADD as well, so.

>> Yes, speaking of ADD, I want to pivot in the conversation toward research methods and then we'll comeback to cheatgrass. Few years ago, at the Society for Range Management meeting in Sacramento, Temple Grandin, there was fairly well known animal behaviorist from Colorado State University gave the keynote address during the plenary session. And she described-- most people know she's autistic. She described different ways of thinking or starting with the contrast between her own way of thinking and that of most quantitative researchers. She thinks in pictures not really translating words into pictures but things in pictures like that's the native language of her brain. And she described how that makes communication challenging with the rest of the world. But there are some strings in this and that talk was not long after the nuclear plant disaster in Japan, Fukushima I think, following the tsunami. And she said that if anybody had been involved in designing, auditing, building that power plant who was a picture thinker they would have visualized sea water rushing into the rooms that house the back up power systems for the plant that activate when the primary power sources go off. That's a long introduction to her admonition to a conference full of scientist that healthy approaches to applied research start with observations in the real world made by real people and then move that toward controlled experiments or case studies that set out to tease out causality, your thoughts on this?

>> Yeah. All right, I think, for me, myself I'm a pretty visual thinker as well for what that's worth and I really do think that sort of common sense approach is to research or more productive not only for the researcher but for society at large. Because what, you know, what we end up saying, I think, the fluid of that other than a nuclear facility going on high alert as we-- what some of that drives us, when you get to the university research rather than being for the, you know, duty and humanity, so to speak it just becomes a competition to get funding instead of a rational thoughtful approach to solving problems that real people have in the real world. And a lot of my colleagues get sucked in to that and that mode of thinking that it's all about, you know, a competition for getting funding of course administration is, you know, a big part of that. But I do think that Temple was right about that. As we just-- we don't observe things long enough or as long as we should before we start trying to solve somebody's problem. It is kind of take off on our own and I think as a society in general certainly in academia I think that happens quite frequently.

>> So you would say the problem is a little bit more fundamental than, I guess, the chief sin of following funders demand for what gets researched. It somewhat is losing touch with reality in the university scientific community?

>> Well I think the old, you know, being sequestered in a silo on an academic campus and that's an old cliché but its still true to some--

>> Yeah.

>> -- to some point to today, so.

>> Yeah, I'm an extension specialist which is more outreach and less research and at least at WSU there's some movement toward integrating extension faculty into college departments to facilitate more integrated work with teaching research out reach. It seems to me that that's the original intent of the cooperative extension system extending the knowledge base of the land-grant universities out to people that can use it and do you think that integration will help if it happened to system wide?

>> Well I think it-- the model is there. It's been successful in the past, you know, for decades.

>> Yeah.

>> And then a lot of land-grant universities over the past couple of decades of sort of abandon that whether intentionally or unintentionally in some cases. And I think what they're finding now is that they were going to have to have a movement back toward that three legs duel of a land-grant university where you are teaching, you have research and you have outreach. And it's pretty good model, it works pretty good when it's implemented correctly.

>> Yeah, can you describe some research that you've been involve with recently that was initiated by interaction with ranchers and land managers?

>> Well, you know, I think the big example is and you already mentioned it earlier is this invasive annual grass issue in the Intermountain West that's been sort of simmering on the back burner for several decades. And we, you know, we had the one of the ranchers, we were out at the-- we had a group of ranchers out of university ranch. One day when we're talking about it and I was talking about this is what I would like to do in terms of research. And one of the ranchers say well, why don't you just do it here in this way, in this local and, you know, I thought about it for a little while and said well, yeah. Maybe we can make that work. And so, just, you know, direct result of just having a conversation with, you know, the ranching industry sort of set us on the pathway to solving at least the impart they-- this issue of invasive annual grasses when it comes to cheatgrass in particular. So, there's this classic example of that. You got to get out in the real world and discover what the problems are and discover, you know, look at the problem long enough. And I had a travel elder tell me years and years ago that he said look, you know, when you're young man or young woman this is when you've seen enough and when you've heard enough and when you've thought about what you've seen and heard long enough, then you'll have something to say. At first, you know, the bad incident portion of that was, you know, keep your mouth shut until you know what's going about what's you're talking about. And I think, you know, that bit of a wisdom is probably lost on a large segment of our society today, so.

>> Yeah, you along with the few others publish a paper in 2018 I believe. That was discussing more of this new paradigm for thinking about cheatgrass, then the details of some research that have been done on cheatgrass. But in that paper, you said that we focus in range managing guidelines on promoting the bigger of desirable perennial grasses as the main weapon so to speak against invasive annual grasses. But that, even if we combine that with target a grazing during the boot stage or early seed head formation, this really hasn't appreciatively reduced the cheatgrass problem. And in making the transition in the-- and I saw the papers narrative, transitioning to talking about this novel approach. You provide some analysis of a scientific name for cheatgrass Bromus tectorum and this really struck me. I don't have been in the field of range ecology for 20 years and I had never heard anybody identify that tectum is a Latin word for roof and that Bromus tectorum is literally Brome of the roof. And, of course, everyone knows the species came from the Mediterranean. I had heard research from UC Davis showing that the radical, the root hair coming off from cheatgrass so you can go through eight inches of litter to get down to some moisture or soil and that make sense. But you guys make the case in paper that we have to move beyond and thinking about just promoting the competition with-- beginning to think through interrupting the biology of the plant. According here, although a healthy resilient perennial grass understory is likely the single most important long term assurance against invasive annual grass dominants. Range ecologists and managers have long applied science based-management practices that exclude consideration of the biology, ecology and probable management effects these grazing systems would have on a non-native annual grass component of modern landscapes. And you discussed both deferred-rotation and rest-rotation is the dominant grazing systems used in the Great Basin and I would say in the Pacific Northwest as well. And that these are really focused on meeting the needs of the perennials but don't-- but they tend to perpetuate cheatgrass in particular. So what is the alternative approach that seems to have some merits?

>> Well, first of all, it sounded pretty good when you read it. I think-- that's good but anyway, yeah. What, you know, when our grazing systems, when the sort of our traditional grazing systems that we used throughout the Intermountain West were developed, they were developed at a time prior to, you know, invasive annuals becoming a significant portion of the landscape. Deferred-rotation of course, A.W. Sampson back, you know at 1912 and then rest-rotation later on with Gus Hormay and his group in the 1950s. And-- And so, we imposed those and what worked great for those systems, those perennial systems that, you know, didn't have any invasive annuals in them. They worked fantastic, the research, you know, showed it and when they were implemented it showed it that it was good for the perennial grasses. But now over the intervening time, we begin to overlie invasive annuals into the system and when these grazing systems were developed, nobody checked to see what kind of an effect it would have on the invasive annuals that were growing alongside the perennials. We just continue to, you know, implement what we've been implementing for grazing systems for the last several decades. And we just never thought of, I guess no one ever thought to ask the question of what could this be harder the problem that shifting the dominants away from perennial grasses into the-- towards the annual grasses, you know what's going on here. So we kind of-- I mean, that's-- you know, that's what happened and then what we found out through research and some of the basic research actually occurred in the 1970s. And then back to this, you know, grass of the roof idea, it all pointed toward litter, ground litter and the more ground litter it turns out the more staining dead litter you leave on the ground in the fall when cheatgrass begins to germinate, you know, after the traditional grazing season. The more cheatgrass you're going to have over time, it's pretty simple concept. And then, of course, you know, you referred to the Latin name of cheatgrass being-- basically being grass of the roof. Linnaeus's named it, you know, in Europe and its preferred habitat at that time was growing on old thatched roofs and in piles of thatch when they would pull of-- pull them off the roofs to replace them, so it all just sort of added up and then of course the basic research in the '70s showed that litter cheatgrass and medusahead as well need a litter accumulation to really do well. They just don't do well on bare soils or soils with low litter accumulations, so.

>> Yeah, that makes me wonder even about the actual biological mechanisms involved in places where cheatgrass isn't abundant. For example, at least in the Pacific Northwest where you have pretty healthy bluebunch wheatgrass communities, you tend to not find much cheatgrass. And I think I would have assumed that that was because there was competition at the plant soil interface for nutrients moister or something but then-- and also thinking that one of the diagnostic features for identifying bluebunch wheatgrass is that it retains a lot of its stems and leaves in the plant crown, and it doesn't lay them down under snow load, they really stay there. And so, bluebunch wheatgrass communities notoriously don't make a lot of ground litter. I wonder if that's more causative than the competition.

>> I'll give you the typical rangeland ecologist answer, well it depends.

>> It depends? Yeah.

>> It depends on where you are and then, we're talking about-- you know, where I'm talking about primarily in the sort of the middle of the Great Basin we're winter dominated precept and we're in 8 to 10-inch precept zone. And if you start getting above, you know, you get into that 12-inch precept zone other things begin to apply that don't apply in a different ecological side. And so, when you got bluebunch wheatgrass, you got a little bit higher precipitation and maybe the periodicity or the seasonality of it is a little bit different. So it's never just one thing, you know, it's not just the litters, it's the competition that's there as well. But what happens, what make sense and what we're seeing down, you know, in the Great Basin area anyway is that things, this big cheatgrass years or big medusahead years they're episodic. You know, like everything else in our neck of the woods, recruitment is episodic whether it's a, you know, shrubs species or a tree species or grass species, the more harsh the site, the more variable the site is, weather wise, and so on and so forth. The more episodic reproduction or establishment becomes. And so, you maybe-- you may go along for a number of years and not have a lot of cheatgrass litter, you know, generated or perennial grass litter generated and then suddenly you get a, you know, a 2016 or maybe this year or might be one of those years. You get this gigantic years where the cheatgrass just out produces everything, just swamps everything. And so, those are the years when the biggest ecological change occurs. It's not necessary that drought years, I've been arguing for a long time, we've got, you know, we've got drought plants at the Wausau. But the drought years aren't the big years that create the ecological change, it's the-- it's this big wet years where invasive annuals are just exploding with their dominants. Those are the years that dry the fuel. That causes the fires. That, you know, dries most not all, but most of the ecological change that we're seeing in the Intermountain West are these wet years, you know, that's not-- maybe not to be, may not be the best way to characterize them. But these higher precept years, that really drive high production of these, you know, invasive annuals. So I don't know how far I strayed from the topic but, you know, rein me in whenever I get to far off field here but.

>> Yeah, so what's the approach that seems to be working? Fall and winter grazing that disrupts litters seems like there's-- in our-- in looking at the paper and talking with Kirk Davies about this as soon as like there's really three biological mechanisms that would be effective with fallen, maybe early winter grazing with these lower elevations. One is that the animal's domestic livestock will consume the fall germinated seedlings, two that the animals disrupt the litter cover that at a minimum potentially opens up germination sites for perennial grasses, and three, something you and I have talked about a bit is that the animals likely consume some of that old litter is that what's going on or is there-- are there more mechanisms as well?

>> There may be more subtle mechanisms that they aren't expressing themselves but given the situation we have, but given where we're at now in the scheme of things those three things kind of go together to sort of provide some causality, you know, in the first place, we don't have perennial grasses there. There's nothing that's going to respond to a reduction in, you know, annual grass.

>> Right.

>> So we got to have perennial grasses there to provide some kind of competition or some, you know, something to take up that slack that you're creating there, that empty space that you're creating. And yes cattle, if you get a green up on cheatgrass in the fall they'll eat it. They will eat the standing dead litter. They'll eat last year's oxidized litter that's laying on the ground. They're just-- It becomes really palpable forage in October and November and December and in much of the Great Basin. And, of course, your perennials are dormant for the most part of that point in time. And so, you're less likely to do any kind of long-term damage on perennial grasses. And then you have but just a fewer aspect and this is what brought us to research in cheatgrass and finding out some of the things that we didn't know as we thought. Well, OK, if we got, you know, pick a number we've got a thousand pounds of cheatgrass to the acre in an area out here October the 1st, this dead standing cheatgrass. And we go out there we take a bunch of animals out there and we ate-- eat 800 pounds of that, that's 800 pounds a few that's not going to be carried over in the next year's fire season. So just from that standpoint, I mean that's where we first, you know, sort of waited into these things. So, can we get them to eat this stuff in the fall, so that, you know, we don't carry-- we don't have a bunch of fuels carried over into the next fuel season. And the problem with, you know, the problems that we have, we're trying to graze cheatgrass in the spring in the Intermountain West. And I'm not talking about Montana and Wyoming there-- in places like there where there's been some research that's I know Jeff Moses and Nancy worked up there. It shows that you can really sort of, you know, hammer cheatgrass pretty good if you graze it in the spring. And that it works for them there but in Intermountain West the logistics of that are just impossible. Trying to chase green cheatgrass in northern or central Nevada in the spring is just a pipe dream because logistically because you don't know when it's going to green up. You know, this year it might green up, in January next year it might be March. So you don't know when it's going to green up. You don't know how long it's going to be before it heads out, it-- you know, so absolutely the stuff head out in a week sometimes. So you don't know how long you're going to be able to be on it and you don't know how much you're going to get. And so, once you're trying to plan, you know, those cows, you can't just put them in a lot and say, will you guys hold it for, you know, a month or two. They got to have a place to go. And so, logistically you just-- you can't make very good plans for trying to graze cheatgrass, green cheatgrass in the spring in most of the Great Basin area. Whereas in the fall, once the seed heads, once the seeds fall off of it, you know, by about first of September anyway in most cases, it becomes very palpable again. And it's not going to grow anymore. You can go out there and you can do a quick measurement, you know how much you got. You can measure how many pounds you got for acre. And you can quick, do some figuring of how many cows you need to get it down and how much time you need to get it down to whatever your target level was. And our target level in our research was about 100 to 200 pounds to the acre because that's basically the difference between a direct attack and indirect attack if it cat-- if it caught fire. So we can kind of use that as our rule of thumb for trying to get the standing litter, the standing biomass down to those levels. And so, in the fall, all those logistical problems go away and plus in the fall typically your perennials are dormant. In the spring they're not. And so, cheatgrass is green, just growing inside perennials and all of a sudden cheatgrass starts heading out in a week or two well the dike preference completely shifts from cheatgrass over to your perennials and you might be, you know, in your perennial stem elongation stage possibly. And so, there could-- you know, there could potentially be some short-term issues probably not long-term but. So anyway, logistically, trying to graze stuff in the fall just made sense. And again if you can go out there and you can, you know, graze off 5 or 6 or 800 or 1,000 pounds of it in the fall, you won't have that carried over in the next year's fuel load which, you know, makes some sense. What we didn't realize at that time and I discovered this over in Central Asia going back and forth over there, what we discovered was that this litter in many occasions is really the key that she has dominance to over to invasive annual grasses. And the way that you've managed it, the way that you've managed your-- the areas that you're grazing that had perennial grass is on the mix with these invasive annuals. The way that you graze them not only affects, you know, this is brilliant. It not only affects the perennial grasses but it also affects the annual grasses out there.

>> Yeah.

>> And so, how do you get those things into better synchronization and the folks over in Central Asia, you know, they've been grazing animals for 8,000 years over there. They have a few things figured out that we may not have figured out over here, so.

>> Yeah. You mentioned that one of the old paradigms is trying to promote the perennials but I think one of the other old paradigms is what you have called the pristine management paradigm. The idea and I guess I would say if I'm paraphrasing what you guys articulate in the paper, not only can we not return to some pre-Columbian ecological nirvana but maybe there wasn't one.

>> [Laughs] That's exactly right. That's-- It's a good way of putting it. You know, when people think of-- people in general, think of the west and what it should look like or what they wanted to look like, they immediately go back to, you know, Lewis and Clark and their description of the landscape. And during the pioneer period, the settlement period, and just before that, you know, 1491, that whole post-Columbian period began to work on the ecosystems in a way that this kind of negatives and that's just-- that just makes no sense because why do you-- why are you choosing that period of time, for instance, a period of time where the little Ice Age from 1550 to 1850. Why are you choosing that period of time as your target for this thing, you know, this thing that we call a pristine landscape? Why not the, you know, 8,000 years ago or 7,000 years ago when we were in the middle of a 3,000-year drought, when people were no longer hunting big game. They were subsisting on, you know, squeaky dogs and wood rats and a whole lot of plant materials. You know, why where we waited to, you know, to that moment in time in 1804 as our vision of a pristine landscape that everything else post that time is measured against. You know, you can't be 12 years old again. Even if you could be 12 years old, again, everything else around you is not what it was when you were 12 years old again. So, it just-- it doesn't make much sense and yet that's what much of our management over the last several decades has been geared toward, if a-- at the plant community of some kind out here is not what we wanted to be, then we could manage it, so that it'll become what it was. And it just doesn't play out in reality very well.

>> Yeah. Going back to what you said about grazing in the Old World and some of the research and trying to look at how where were the natural controlled mechanisms for cheatgrass in the eastern hemisphere. Well, what does there-- what does some of those grazing patterns look like?

>> The-- Typically, again, from a rangeland ecologist, it depends. But typically, for instance, in much of Central Asia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Xinjiang-- Xinjiang province in Northwest China. Typically, the way that the pastoralist used those areas is they'll wither in the desert and there's a number of deserts, and types of deserts. But they wither lower elevation, we put it that way, they wither in those areas. And then they'll move up in elevation to the foothills in the spring which is typically where the annual grasses occur along with perennial grasses. They have a mixed annual perennial plant communities when it comes to grasses. So they'll move up into the foothills and they'll graze that in the spring on their way up to the mountains. And they will summer up in the higher elevations. And then as the winter comes on, it gets a little cold, get snowy in the mountains, they'll move back down the mountains, they'll move back through those foothills rangelands again in the fall. Graze them again in the fall on their way back to their winter range out in the lower elevations, desert country. And so, those foothills areas get grazed twice. They get graze in the spring, they get graze in the fall. And when they come back in the fall, they take off pretty much most of that standing dead biomass. There's not a lot of standing dead biomass in throughout Central Asia. And so, it's a different way of sort of looking at the world. If there's something there that could be eaten, something that eats it. So it's a really different way of viewing things. Now, you can overdo anything, obviously. But we started thinking, you know, what's going on here? They don't have a cheatgrass found. This is the ancestral home of cheatgrass. They don't have a problem with it over here. What, what is going on? And, so I brought this idea back that what would happen if we manage land in the United States and the Great Basin? If we manage land in the Great Basin grazing-wise, the way that they manage land in Central Asia, would we get the same result? Where cheatgrass is not dominant over there, we have much the same other perennial species, some of them are different but, you know, they're bluegrasses, they're Poas. And they are needlegrasses, stipas, and so on. So what, you know, what's going on? What's different? So if we manage land this way in the Great Basin, do we get the same results that they have in Central Asia because they don't have any fires over there. You start talking about fires in Central Asia that my colleagues over there and they're just kind of look at you with blank, you know, blank there. They don't have-- They don't know what you're talking about. It's just not in their experience. And so, conversely, you know the idea is well if you manage land in Central Asia the way that we manage land in the Great Basin, would we get the same results. And so, sort of what we come up with is, yeah, that's what happens. But if you manage land in the United States and you take care of that standing dead litter in the fall, cheatgrass is really at competitive disadvantage. In most years, you know, there's going to be some years where it might not work that way but over the long haul, you really cut back on cheatgrass' ability to dominate an area. Not-- And I'm not talking about how did it get somewhere. We're not talking about how did cheatgrass get to, you know, under next to a rock on a cliff face in the Ruby Mountain somewhere? We're just talking about its dominance where it's already, you know, located and how we, as managers, have actually managed cheatgrass through the way that we manage land. How we've actually manage it to become dominant? And, you know what, I've said this many times in a lot of different venues giving the talks on this subject, if someone told me, you know, 30 years ago or 40 years ago to out and grow as much cheatgrass as you could in the Great Basin, the only thing that I would have change during that time period would have-- I would have pulled all the domestic animals off. And because our management in general, all of our management focus has been designed around the health and safety of the perennial plant, perennial grass plant and we just did not imagine or ever think about what that effect might have on the annual grasses and here, you know, we come full circle back to what we were talking about earlier, same subject. And so, our management in many ways has certainly at least exacerbated the rise of cheatgrass dominance in the Intermountain West. So-- But knowing that now and knowing why, you can reverse that and it gets reversed if you start implementing fall grazing it's-- it we had several demonstration projects around, you know. And you can also find places in nature where it occurs. But when you start really controlling that standing dead litter in the fall, it takes about three growing seasons to four growing seasons that you really start seeing a significant change in the dominance out there. Now it's-- you know, it's here we're not going to get rid of it, so it's going to require some maintenance over time. You know, there may be years where you may not have enough cheatgrass to grow out there in the fall and support animals. But in other years, of course, we know that there's not enough animals in the Intermountain West to take care of a half of a county in northern Nevada in terms of being able to eat all the cheatgrass standing dead biomass you grazed it all down. But over the long haul, over time, we can shift that dominance and we know it, we know how to do it, and now it's just a matter of getting it implemented. And on scales that are significant enough to maybe have some effect on the size of some of these wildfires that we've been having over the last couple of decades.

>> Yeah. From an animal health perspective, are there any risks in grazing what seems like a pretty low quality feed at a time where you're moving into winter, trying to maintain body condition on mother cows, there's still in, you know, second, sometimes third trimester. Are there any risks in them?

>> Oh yes. And we've gone out of their way to try and mitigate those risks in our research and in our recommendations. And throughout there in October, you know, mid-September, October, November, you know, your usually for most operations, your cattle are in a physiological stage where it's their lowest physiological demand stage for nutrients. They're in that-- if weighing the calves so--

>> Right, they're not lactating.

>> -- yeah, they're not lactating and they're in that, you know, light second trimester sort of period of time in some case, and it depends but depending on when people is calving dates are. But, typically, they're out there at a period of time when their nutrient demand is at its lowest. And so, what we've done even to try and make sure that there are some safety room there is we've used supplements, protein supplements just to make sure that we didn't have any train wrecks. Now, there are some years-- and back to cheatgrass nutrition. Cheatgrass has usually has a lot of quite a bit of energy content that's usually not lacking in terms of animal requirements. But sometimes the protein is, but sometimes it's not. I've seen cheatgrass in any given year. It's their-- It's much like our perennial grasses. In any given year, it may be seven and a half, 8% accrued protein in October and it may be 3%. It just depends on the given year. And that's really not much different than our perennial grasses. And, of course, cheatgrass is a-- once the seed heads dropped, it becomes a really nice fine particled forage and we found that in one of our studies that a cattle actually prefer it over the perennials, it's not as coarse. There's not as much structural carbohydrate in it. It digests a little bit easier. And so, they actually prefer it over the perennials, which is great as far as perennial health goes too, so. So as far as nutrition goes, it sort of an old tale that there's no nutritional value in cheatgrass and of course we've had ranchers throughout the Intermountain West that their families were probably been out of business a long time ago and so they didn't have cheatgrass to wither off. And of course the, you know, the tale was, this is no good. Well, you know, there is some of these hoe boys that kind of, you know, make the joke that, oh we eat all the cheatgrass. We won't have any winter [inaudible] anymore. So it's much better feed source than sort of what's clothing out there in the sort of public domain. It's a whole lot better feed than it's getting credit for, at least in the fall anyway.

>> Yeah, I can see that everybody benefits to fall and winter grazing in particularly the lower elevation cheatgrass down to that range. Those are often places that I get grazed fairly heavily in May and June and not grazing in May and June would have some benefit as well.

>> Absolutely.

>> A couple of the thoughts on fire going back to a comment you made about, really no wildfire in Central Asia. Is that only because fuel is food or other, you know, climate mechanisms that make it to where they would not have much fire even if grasses weren't being consumed by animals.

>> That's an interesting question. The answer to that is probably yes. There's going to be some areas that, just like there is in the United States and Intermountain West, wildfires just not going to be out of control, so to speak and be so frequent like we have it in many places in the Intermountain West now. And again it's, you know, it's not just the size, it's the frequency that gets change when we're going to have these annual grasses that become dominant. It would be a really interesting question to answer because it's certainly true that there's something that can be-- if an animal can get to it in Central Asia, they're going to get to it. If it's there, it's food. They're much more on a pastoralist subsistence basis over there and we just view land management. Their idea of land management is vastly different than what ours has been over the last several decades in the US. And so, you know, in the very few instances that you can find over there where grazing has been excluded and I mean it is hard to find. And even when you build grazing exclosures which I've done over there, it's very hard to keep animals out the grazing exclosures, especially, when you're on the other side of the world. It's just a--

>> Yeah.

>> It's a different mentality and the security on grazing exclosure over there is-- even when you apply for security, it might not be as secure as human life for it to be. So, it's a whole different mindset in Central Asia that quite it has been in the US over the last several decades.

>> Yeah. One last rabbit trail regarding wildfire. You know if we had-- it's often said that most of the plank maze in the west are fire adapted or disturbance driven ecosystems. But if we had 10 fire ecologists in the room, we probably get 27 different answers on what the historic fire return interval was. Is-- And some people would say, wildfire in most of the west would happen, you know, anywhere from every 15 to 100 years depending on the plank community. And to what extent is or the wildfires that we're having a big problem and I realize they're a human problem. You know how-- yeah, what are your thoughts on how prevalent fire was in the past both human caused and wildfire and the extent of historical wildfire? And do we cause other problems if we try to manage grazing animals in a way that it really limits both the severity and the frequency of wildfires as we see them today?

>> Well, yeah. I think and I really sort of hammer this point in my classes when I-- that I teach. It is that context is important, it's critically important. You know if you're going to tell me the story of you, where are you going to begin?

>> Mm-hmm.

>> You're going to begin at the beginning there. You can't start in the middle of a story. You got to start at the beginning and you got to provide context. And so, that's what this idea of fire frequency, you know, historical fire frequency does for us. And one of the things it does for us is it gives us an idea of what the natural range of variation has been in the past and we can combine that with some of the climate work and tree ring work, and things like that. And we can come up with some ideas of what the limits are anyway. What they have been on average over the past several hundred years or in some cases maybe the last several thousand years. And so, context is extremely important to understand what the natural range of variation is and where we might go if something changes on the landscape in some way. But I prefer thinking forward and saying, OK, what do we want the landscape to be like in the future? And, of course, in my way of thinking is I want to maintain options for the future that if we're all burnout, if we got fire frequencies of, you know, 2 to 5 years over 58 million acres of former sagebrush [inaudible] some sagebrush--

>> That's a problem.

>> -- ecosystem, then I don't have that many options of doing anything in the future for caring, for, you know, wildlife habitat premises or Cali Grazing in terms of or anything, there's just not much option there. And so, I think the society and the leaders in society had to say, look this is what we want for the future. We want to maintain our options for the future. How do we go about managing processes in order to achieve that? And by process is I mean things like fire. I mean things like recruitment policies like big years in of, you know, annual grass flashes. How do we manage things to be what we wanted to be in the future? Because trying to manage things like they were in the past is just-- it's just ridiculous. You can't go back, but you can look forward and you can make a plan and say, look, these are the kinds of things that we would like to have out there in the future. We want, you know, we want carbon sequestration. We want wildlife habitat, a mix of habitat, seasonal habitats for all kinds of creatures out there. We want to be able to use these lands for grazing purposes and we can use grazing as a tool to help us maintain those options out there. So, I think that's the direction that we should be moving instead of this idea of trying to create something on the landscape that it probably never was and we probably don't have a good understanding of it or as good of an understanding of it because sometimes I think we think that we do. So, you know, in the past, you know, an interesting question that has come up this year that I've been discussing with some of my colleagues. We have the fire up in the Hawaii desert this year. It burned about 450,000 acres and it was a sagebrush-driven fire. It wasn't a-- wouldn't an annual grass fire. It started in some annual grass but once it got into a sagebrush country up there, it was a sagebrush fire. And there is as such and that thing as a sagebrush driven fire and in the sagebrush step area where you have a lot of understory, a lot of perennial understory. Those kinds of fires probably happen every once in a while, you know.

>> Right.

>> What the time period in between them was, we don't know, but they probably happen. And so, when you look at the Hawaii desert and you see some of the other fires and it burned almost 20 years ago now that they don't have sagebrush. It hasn't come back to them. We have to start thinking about your understanding of these areas and it really makes you wonder how-- it makes you think this way. It makes you want to think this way that a lot of those areas that we think as sagebrush seeds has probably spent the last several hundred years or maybe even over the last several thousand years has probably spent more time as the grassland than it has been as a shrubland. And so, that just flies in the face of everything that we have wind up for management. And so, it really sort of the changes the context when you start thinking about that because sagebrush recruitment like everything else is episodic. And, you know, when you see a sagebrush plant community I think you're only looking at three or maybe four of different cohorts that are out there that are making up all that structure that you're seeing. And most of those are, you know, 40-year, maybe maximum of 40-year, 50 years old sort of been our experience. And so, you know, how do you get proper deals? You know, seed grain from sagebrush, you know, maybe three meters in a year. How do you get sagebrush seed from a seed source over here that's 80 miles or a 100 miles from the center of the, you know, of one of those kinds of fire. You know, how long does that take? Hundreds of years possibly and maybe even more than that, we just don't know. So there's some really fascinating questions that I think are going to need to be answered before we get a good idea or a better idea that's going to help us have a better idea of how to manage into the future by starting a set of goals and objectives that we have for, you know, for the future instead of trying to manage things. So that it become something that they were which is kind of where we've been progressing the last several decades anywhere, in my opinion.

>> The funding for these podcast is from the Western Center for Risk Management Education and the goal primarily is helping ranchers manage environmental and economic risk. If I were a rancher in the Great Basin, what resources would you point me to if I was interested in learning a little more about of what we've been discussing today?

>> Well, certainly, cooperative extension is a great place to start. Some of this step that we've been talking about today is relatively new. I mean it's only been 10 years since we've been doing some of this cheatgrass work. And we're beginning to see some changes in policy at Washington, DC in terms of management and some of the efforts that some of the management agencies are becoming involved in. They're beginning to take a look at some of this work and trying to implement it on the landscape. But I would, you know, I'm a big believer in cooperative extension, and just about everybody-- and I say just about everybody. A lot of folks know that this is going on now that it's new, a new approach and they may not know much about it but they know who to get a hold of--

>> Yeah.

>> -- to you know, help out. So I'm always available to do whatever I can [background music] and some of my colleagues as well so, you know, that's a great place to start as cooperative extension.

>> Very good, my guest today was Barry Perryman with the University of Nevada, Reno. Barry, again, thank you very much for your time.

>> Well, thank you. Glad to be a part of it.

>> Thank you for listening to The Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in the future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering range line managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University, the project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Mentioned Resources

A UN-R bulletin on grazing to control cheatgrass is available here:…/2015/sp1503.pdf

1491, a book by Charles Mann, can be purchased at…1581963901&sr=8-1.

Most of Barry's publications are available at his university web page:

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