Skip to main content Skip to navigation

WSU’s On Solid Ground: Cattle and prairies, nematodes, soil quality, grape harvest

Posted by | October 6, 2014

Cattle could protect butterflies, conserve prairies

Butterflies, cattle and the military may seem like unlikely bedfellows, but for native prairies—some of the most threatened habitats in the world—the trio are closely connected.

Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. (Photo by Barna Aaron, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. (Photo by Barna
Aaron, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the improbable pairing of cattle grazing and native prairie conservation is not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. Carefully managed grazing regimes can improve weed control and plant health, help re-establish native plants, and increase plant diversity compared with an unmanaged system. However, until now no systematic study has attempted to track the impacts of managed grazing on native prairie plant communities in western Washington.

Scientists at WSU, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), have established just such a study to see how “working landscapes” might support habitat conservation goals.

Military backing

In Washington State, much of the only remaining native prairie lands are found in southern Puget Sound, including on Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Thurston County. These prairies support a diverse array of plant and animal species at risk for extinction. These include the rare, native golden paintbrush, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and Mazama pocket gopher, which was recently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Native camas lily on cow pile. (Photo courtesy Peter Dunwidde, CNLM)
Native camas lily on cow pile. (Photo
courtesy Peter Dunwidde, CNLM)

Southern Puget Sound prairies are the focus of the Sentinel Landscape pilot project, a federal, local and private collaboration intended to preserve agricultural lands, plus restore and protect more than 2,600 acres of public and private prairie lands that serve as wildlife habitat. At the same time, the $12.6 million project funded by the DoD, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will reduce restrictions to military training activities on JBLM land.

“This is a unique partnership between agricultural and conservation professionals looking to improve productivity and conserve species,” said Lucas Patzek, director and agriculture faculty for WSU Thurston County Extension. “It’s part field research and part outreach to study how we might be able to integrate native plant species into working livestock operations on South Puget Sound prairies and also extend habitat for the recently listed checkerspot butterfly.”

Ranch-based research

The three-year study includes plots on Fred Colvin’s 550-acre black and red angus cattle ranch in south Thurston County. Fencing and research plots were set up on Colvin’s property last fall to measure differences between excluding cattle and allowing them to graze.

Fred Colvin, owner of Colvin Ranch in Tenino, Wash. (Photo by Sylvia Kantor, WSU)
Fred Colvin, owner of Colvin Ranch in Tenino, Wash.
(Photo by Sylvia Kantor, WSU)

Certain fields are managed to improve native plant diversity and cover, while others are managed for a mixture of non-native species such as orchardgrass and tall fescue.

“They’re trying to figure out whether cattle can be part of a commercial cattle operation plus help as far as the prairies are concerned,” Colvin said. “Frankly, if you don’t have ag on these prairies, you might as well write the prairies off. Because what’s the other alternative use? Forestry? That won’t work. Pavement? I’ll tell you, the pocket gopher can’t live under pavement.”

As the Sentinel Landscapes project moves forward, Colvin wants to be sure the needs of the landowner—the ability to have a productive and profitable farming operation—are given priority.

Managing intensive grazing

To introduce producers to the concept of integrating livestock with prairie habitat conservation, Patzek developed a unique three-part managed intensive grazing course.

Colvin and over 60 other participants who took the course this summer learned about the importance of designating areas for livestock to graze when native plant pastures are either dormant or seasonally deferred during critical growth periods.

Future findings

It’s too early for results, but Patzek expects to find that, through prescribed management, the cattle will selectively graze the non-native perennial grasses that limit the establishment and growth of native species. He also expects the cattle hoof action will more readily return organic matter to the soil and promote seed contact with soil for improved germination of native plants like golden paintbrush.

It can take a couple of years for native plants to get established, so Patzek expects the research will continue as part of a long-term restoration and management project.

In the meantime, Patzek will continue to offer workshops for private landowners to better manage agricultural endeavors in western Washington prairie ecosystems. A series of fall workshops will teach agricultural producers how to conduct ecological site assessments.

—Sylvia Kantor

Nematode found in Washington; quarantines unlikely

A close relative of the cereal cyst nematode was discovered in Washington for the first time this summer. Local scientists don’t believe quarantines of Heterodera filipjevi will be required but are assessing the significance of the discovery.

“We’ve been dealing with a similar nematode for several years,” said Timothy Murray, a WSU plant pathologist. “This new species will have a comparable impact to the existing one and we’ll use the same treatments for its control.”

A stunted patch of winter wheat in a field infested by Heterodera filipjevi near Colton, Wash.
A stunted patch of winter wheat in a field infested
by Heterodera filipjevi near Colton, Wash.

Richard Smiley, an Oregon State University professor, was responsible for the find in Whitman County, Washington, and discovered the same species in Oregon in 2008.

H. filipjevi is listed as a quarantine pest by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. The agency can potentially prohibit farmers from planting susceptible crops in infected fields. The pest affects wheat, barley, oats and other wheat-like grasses.

However, Murray doesn’t think quarantines will be required. He is in close communication with the inspection service to develop appropriate responses.

The recommended treatment for the pest is crop rotation and nematode-resistant wheat varieties. These practices keep nematode numbers low, thus reducing damage.

“These nematodes are significant pests around the world,” Murray said. “But there isn’t really a reason to quarantine fields in Washington since the nematode is already established and our farmers know how to manage them.”

Once nematodes are present, they are difficult to eliminate. Since they can’t grow on peas or lentils, significant numbers die during crop rotation.

Murray said quarantine is useful in areas where a pest is newly introduced and could be prevented from spreading. But since this nematode already is established in Washington fields, quarantine is unlikely to be effective.

“We estimate the new pest was introduced 10 to 15 years ago,” he said.

He also said Smiley’s research has shown that yield losses due to cereal cyst nematodes rarely exceed 10 percent, with a conservative estimate that nematodes do around $3.4 million in damage each year.

Murray said more surveys are needed to see how far the species has spread. The better the pest can be tracked, the more accurate the response for and from farmers. Smiley found the new species in three locations but did not look outside Whitman County.

Learn more about this discovery by visiting the WSU Extension small grains website.

—Scott Weybright

Questioning the value of soil quality

“The Nation’s Leading Potato Producing County,” states a sign on I-90 at the Grant County border. In 2010, Washington potato yields averaged 33 tons per acre compared to Nebraska at 20.7, Wisconsin at 19.8, and Maine at 14.5 tons. (Idaho’s main potato-producing counties average 27.2 tons per acre.)

Tall grass prairie under which high organic matter soils (photo: Krazytea)
Tall grass prairie under which high organic
matter soils (photo: Krazytea)

And it is not just potatoes; the Columbia Basin produces high yields of corn, dry beans, onions, and many other crops. However, the productive soils in the Columbia Basin often have soil organic matter levels less than 1%, much less than the level considered as adequate for proper functioning, and certainly not high enough to be considered high quality. How can such “low quality” soils produce yields higher than other regions with higher soil quality? This paradox highlights a problem with the concept of soil quality; that it does not take into account the soil management practices that farmers employ to overcome problems in so-called “low quality soils” and therefore does not reflect the real production capacity of soils, especially in the West.

Soil quality (or soil health) is currently receiving renewed appreciation among farmers, Extension, NRCS and conservation districts across the nation. While I commend this interest in soils, pursuing a vaguely defined soil quality or soil health can obscure the specific problems and their solutions.

For instance, across much of the arid West, low levels of organic matter can cause problems like crusting, low infiltration rates, low water holding capacity, poor horizontal water movement, low nutrient storage and cycling, restricted air movement, and compaction. Add to this the intensive tillage that often accompanies production of crops like potatoes, and the resulting bare soil is prone to wind erosion, increased evaporative losses of water and hot soil temperatures. Nevertheless, yields have been maintained, and even improved, on these “low quality” soils. If soil quality is a valuable concept, why doesn’t it reflect the high yields produced on these soils? The missing component is management. Read more.

—Andrew McGuire

Washington wine grape harvest to set new record


September 2 marked the official start of the 2014 Washington wine grape harvest.

Wine industry watchers are predicting a record harvest this year. The 2014 harvest is expected to be 230,000 tons, which continues a positive trend with 218,000 tons in 2013 and 210,000 tons in 2012.

See below to learn about the combination of factors that make Washington such a successful wine region.

Read more about Washington's unique wines and the impacts of the Missoula Floods. Infographic courtesy of friends and colleagues at the Washington Wine Commission and
Read more about Washington’s unique wines and the impacts of the Missoula Floods.
Infographic courtesy of friends and colleagues at the Washington Wine Commission and