Mechanical and chemical methods used historically to rejuvenate sagebrush-steppe landscapes are cost prohibitive. A low-cost alternative is to fashion systems of management in which locally adapted animals use sagebrush as fall and winter forage to reduce feeding costs and to enhance the growth of grasses and forbs during spring and summer. We evaluated the practicality of fall browsing of sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata, ssp. wyomingensis) by cattle. To do so, we assessed 1) the foraging behavior and body weights of cattle with varying levels of experience browsing sagebrush, and 2) the ensuing responses of sagebrush, grasses, and forbs to cattle grazing. In spatially and temporally replicated trials from 2007 to 2009, cattle were challenged to eat sagebrush. Pregnant cows with calves (2007 and 2008), bred yearling heifers (2008), and first-calf heifer/calf pairs (2009), supplemented with protein and energy, learned to eat sagebrush as a significant portion of their diet (up to 63% of scans recorded during grazing). Experienced animals consistently ate more sagebrush and lost less weight, or gained more weight, than naive animals in 2008 and 2009 (P < 0.05). Cover, production, and percent composition of grasses and forbs maintained or dropped slightly from 2007 to 2008 but then rebounded sharply in 2009 to much greater levels than in 2007 or 2008 (P < 0.05). A corresponding reduction in shrub cover, production, and percent composition accompanied the increase in forbs and grasses (P < 0.05). Our research suggests grazing by cattle during fall and winter can be effective, biologically and economically, and can lead to habitat renovation and resilience by creating locally adapted systems of management in ways that landscape manipulations with chemical and mechanical treatments or prescribed fire cannot.
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