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How to eradicate cheatgrass

Posted 4/1/2009

By Jim Sloan

We took a hike last weekend up on old mining road in the hills of central Nevada that had been burned in a wildfire a couple of years ago. There were still patches of snow on the ground from the last storm, but green grass that was starting to emerge all over that barren country.

It was, of course, cheatgrass. And while most of us at this time of year are eager for spring and any sign of fresh, green growth, the sight of all that cheatgrass wasn’t heartening at all. In fact, it was very discouraging.

Cheatgrass, also known as downy brome, invaded the United States in the late 19th century. It aggressively invades land that has been burned, disturbed or overgrazed, and in some cases it’s invading land that’s never been abused, such as Anahoe Island in Pyramid Lake. The name came from the way it swindled wheat farmers out of crop yields, but also from its ability to steal moisture and soil nutrients from struggling native plants. Its adaptability has allowed cheatgrass to become the dominant species on more than 50 million acres in the arid West.

Cheatgrass dries out quickly, making it an ideal fuel for destructive range fires. Fires are a natural part of the rangeland ecology, but under normal conditions, they only occur about every 30 years or so. When cheatgrass moves in, the fires are sparked more frequently, burn hotter and spread faster, destroying important wildlife habitat and creating even more charred terrain for the weed to find purchase. Cheatgrass fires also burn earlier in the year than native vegetation would.

Cheatgrass can also be deadly around homes, giving floating embers a place to reignite.

It’s not easy to control such a voracious invader, but the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has several experts involved in helping homeowners keep it under control and slowing the spread of cheatgrass on public land. One project in the Walker River Basin, for instance, is attempting to reseed former farmland with native plants, and a big part of that effort is investigating how to keep cheatgrass and other weeds off that land while the new plants are established. Similar work and research has been ongoing in the Lahontan Valley.

Cooperative Extension experts are also working with ranchers, farmers and range managers in many Nevada counties where cheatgrass invasions and frequent wildfires are destroying native vegetation needed for grazing and wildlife. They help run a popular Range Management School, work with various weed control groups, and have established herbicide trial plots to experiment with cheatgrass control. Another research project on the university-owned Gund Ranch outside Austin is exploring how to use cattle to control cheatgrass.

Homeowners can also help reduce the spread of cheatgrass. Fire experts recommend homeowners remove any stand of cheatgrass growing within 30 feet of their home before it dries out and scatters its seeds. Regardless of how you remove the grass, you’ll eventually want to plant some kind of desirable vegetation to take its place — otherwise, cheatgrass will just move back in.

Experts recommend an integrated approach that involves killing and removing cheatgrass. This sometimes calls for spraying herbicides to kill cheatgrass before it produces seeds and then replanting the affected area with something else, such as crested wheatgrass.

Here are some other control tips:

  • You can pull out cheatgrass by hand in the spring and fall if it’s only growing in a small area.
  • If you have livestock, graze cheatgrass areas heavily twice in early spring approximately three weeks apart prior to seed formation.
  • Glyphosate (Roundup-ultra) will help control cheatgrass if applied before the seed head forms. A pre-emergent herbicide such as Preen can be used in the fall before the cheatgrass sprouts. Always carefully follow label directions.

You also need to be careful when traveling in the backcountry. Heat from a vehicle or even the slightest spark — from a lighter, or campfire or ricocheting bullet — can ignite a cheatgrass fire that on a windy day can produce 8-foot flames traveling at nearly 5 miles an hour. If you’re traveling on rangeland, watch where you park and always carry water and shovels in case you start a fire.

Jim Sloan is the communications specialist for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. You can reach him at sloanj@unce.unr.edu.

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