Going to war with cheat grass

Jul 16, 2017 By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

No matter what you do, there's a good chance it will just grow back -- thicker.

The match hit the ground, and within seconds the fire erupted high over my head.

Gasoline and black powder have strong competition in combustibility when it comes to dry cheat grass.

This summer has brought an epidemic of cheat grass of biblical proportions to our fair state. Even its scientific name, Bromus tectorum, sounds ominous. The insidious plant invades farm fields, sagebrush and grasslands with equal abandon. Left unabated it is one of the few plants that can destroy the deeply rooted hardiness of the sagebrush.

My fields, along with those of neighbors for miles around are infested this summer.

There isn't much you can do about it except poison it, plow it under, and replant next year. It's the horticultural equivalent of Civil War medicine, when the only solution to battlefield injuries was amputation.

There are other techniques I've researched, and I decided to attempt them this year.

If you pile it into windrows with your swather and bale it you can burn the bales later, but the plants remain.You can hit the area with a soil sterilant, wait a few weeks, and plant with another crop after the plant's natural reproductive cycle has taken place, but this is risky. The weed often reappears no matter your best intentions.

A weed by the way, is defined as a "plant out of place." It's a term I learned long ago as an FFA agronomy judge.

These plants are definitely out of place, but this year something strange happened. Cheat grass grows best in dry, overgrazed areas but it can just as easily infest well-managed, irrigated land.

Foxtail is another insidious plant, but it prefers wet, boggy areas.The two should be mutually exclusive, but I found them growing happily side by side in each other's favorite biome.

Foxtail on dry, sandy soil, and cheat grass in heavy, water-logged clay, it shouldn't happen.

Last year it was foxtail that bloomed with fetid glee on acres and acres of Fremont County countryside. In August I poisoned about four acres of foxtail, waited a few weeks and replanted the area with Garrison foxtail, a hardy grass that loves boggy soil. The Garrison foxtail took hold, and I was able to cut it late last month. I hope it can hold its own and beat down the invading foxtail over the next few years.

Cheatgrass is a different animal (OK, plant). You burn it, it grows back thicker.You overwater it, it comes back thicker. You don't water it, it comes back thicker. There is a pattern here.

But, if you cut it in mid-summer, let it dry in the windrow, burn the windrow and water it heavily, there's a chance the native grasses can beat it to the punch. At least that's the theory.

I cut my hay two weeks ago and, in drunken-sailor fashion, I swerved around the worst of the cheat grass and foxtail with my tractor and baler, and let it remain in the field.

I irrigated the entire field and the grass grew up under the windrows.Grass lifts windrows above the ground a few inches if you leave it in the field before the grass penetrates the windrow to reach sunlight.

This lifting process created a perfect burn platform for the windrow.

I flooded the upper and lower edges of the field as a fire break then walked out with a box of matches and started tossing them into each end of the piles of grass.

My friend Dave on the Riverton fire department suggested I call the Riverton Police Department dispatcher before the fire started, so I did.It lets them know there is a controlled burn going on and keeps the fire department from responding to people calling it in as a range fire.

It was a strange situation with water about two inches deep under dry, crunchy rows of grass and weeds.

If you've ever tossed a match into a pile of leaves or wood soaked with gasoline, you get an idea of the volatility of cheat grass.I tossed the first match, and the grass crackled into a roaring fire a few seconds later. There was no wind, so the fire just followed the fuel. I lit both ends so the fire would burn out in the middle.

Now there was a roaring fire, racing across an open field covered in water. It was a strange situation.

Two burns covered about four acres of grass and consumed it all in less than 15 minutes.

In the Old West prairie fires were a life-threatening disaster that only the swiftest deer, antelope, coyotes and elk survived. If you aren't cautious and pay close attention when you burn cheat grass along your own fences, then you might get to meet your favorite local firemen in a professional setting.

As for me, it was a bit of medieval alchemy in a 21st century hayfield ravaged by an invasive species brought to our shores four centuries ago by an unwitting English pioneer who thought cheat grass was pretty.

On a hot July day, the four classical elements came together to improve the quality of the forage I grow with earth, wind, water and fire combining to destroy an invasive pest.

The results of my necromancy will have to wait a few weeks to see if they had any positive effect.

Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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