Most researchers assume cattle avoid milkweeds due to toxic compounds. However, observations suggest cattle graze common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.), an important summer host plant for monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus L.) east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa Torr.). This directly relates to efforts to add over 1 billion stems of milkweed for monarch butterfly conservation. We sampled whether cattle regularly graze common/showy milkweed in a central Nebraska restored prairie patch-burn-grazing system with patches burned in the year of the main study (2018) or previous years (2017–2016). We also sampled burned control grasslands without livestock. This sampling therefore compared three different types of burn-graze management. Cow-calf pairs were put onto the grasslands in April, and we sampled every 2 wk through September. We found that wild grazers (e.g., deer) were not grazing common/showy milkweed stems in control grasslands, whereas by August > 73% of stems had been grazed in the patch-burn-grazed grasslands—with no noticeable negative effects on cattle. Also, cattle grazing of common/showy milkweed did not differ significantly in different patches, even though big bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii Vitman) was grazed significantly more in patches burned in 2018. Finally, milkweed abundance in control grasslands ranged from 34- to 185-fold higher than the average milkweed abundance in patch-burn-grazed grasslands. These results suggest that cattle regularly graze common/showy milkweed and that patch-burn-grazing does not increase milkweed abundance when cattle begin grazing in April. The good news of these results is that cattle safely grazed low amounts of common/showy milkweed, suggesting control efforts for these milkweeds are often unnecessary. Future work should examine how to increase milkweed abundance without affecting cattle weight gain, possibly by deferring grazing in some areas during critical milkweed growth periods.
Rangeland Ecology and Management
Vol. 87 • No. 1
Vol. 87 • No. 1