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In Praise of Intermediate Wheatgrass

I am a grass fanatic. For as long as I can remember, I have been smitten with all things grassy, forage-y or pasture-related. When I was about 9 or 10, I would make complex hay mixtures for my Breyer horses in their lovely toy wood barn, outside in the Wisconsin summer. I would snip grass tips and forbs, mix them carefully and then ration feedings out to each horse in its stall. Never would I have imagined that that early, instinctual love of feeding "hay" would blossom into a life path that came to center on the art and science of forage management for soil health and for livestock, across a diverse set of ecosystems all over the country.



Since my first intimate encounter with Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, I have viewed getting to know different grass species like getting to know a new friend (technically, I guess I feel this way about all plant species!) Not only are there facts to learn, but there is also a certain aura or intangible "feel" to a grass that you start to pick up on after interacting with it for a while, just like getting to a know a person: their personality and their spirit is unique! You get to know a grass' likes and dislikes, where you expect to find it hanging out, and its structure and outlines become familiar enough that you can pick it out on the side of a highway going 70 mph, waving to an old friend as it flies by.


Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium or Elymus hispidus) has become a close friend since I moved to Montana. It's a cool-season rhizomatous perennial, native to southern Europe, the Middle East and western Asia. I didn't have any experience with this species before moving here, but I have now spent a lot of time with it in both research plot settings and in pastures. It makes up a substantial part of our forage base at our leased property and its gorgeous glaucous (botanist-speak for the waxy coating that gives a plant a bluish-green hue) color, along with its exceedingly tall culms (stems) and attractive inflorescences, has always grabbed my attention from a purely aesthetic standpoint.


Sheep grazing grass
One of our Lincoln Longwool ewes in a stand of intermediate wheatgrass. Notice how tall the stems are!

This past grazing season, however, was the first time I began to appreciate its unique contributions to our yearly grazing cycle. Intermediate wheatgrass (IWG for short) can be a bit slow to start, but once growth kicks in it produces an abundance of leaf material that is highly-palatable to our sheep. It is also later to head out, and once it does heads out the inflorescences (seed heads) take a long time to mature, much longer than other species that we have in our pasture (e.g. smooth brome, tall fescue, etc.). This means that it helps fill a gap when our other cool season grasses are starting to decline in quality during the heat of summer, which is a great benefit for us (and the sheep!) It also holds quality late into the year and we've found it makes an excellent stockpiled forage for winter grazing .


For the grazier, grasses entering the reproductive stage, or heading out, signal a sharp drop in forage quality and often means that a window of opportunity was missed to graze the forage when it was in its nutritional prime. But late last summer, I began to notice that every time we let the sheep into a new paddock, the first place they went was to the IWG, even though it was solidly in reproductive stage with completely-formed seed heads that were maturing. They attacked the IWG seed heads with gusto! If they had tip-toes they would have been standing on them to reach the tops, but since they couldn't, they learned to step on the stems that were too tall so that the seed heads were brought closer down to the ground. When they left the pasture, it looked like someone had gone through and snipped every single inflorescence off of every single stem--a spikey sea of stems with nothing on top! This is not behavior that was repeated with any other grass, only IWG. I finally became so curious as to what they were getting out of those seeds that I collected samples and sent them off to the lab for analysis.


Sheep grazing grass
A Lincoln ewe snacks on some maturing IWG seed heads.

As I read through the test results, comparing them to another forage sample I had sent that consisted solely of leaf material (some from IWG plants), I was baffled. Everything was virtually the same--the quality of the seed heads was slightly lower (as expected), the percent of carbohydrates was about the same, and the digestibility was poorer than the other forage. There was no stark difference in mineral contents, either. Finally I reached the last page of the results and found what I was looking for: starch. The leafy forage sample had 0, ZERO, starch in it. The IWG seeds were composed of nearly 14% starch. The sheep were after a sugar rush! Now, this is not terribly surprising--grains (seeds) are obviously extremely starchy and that's why animals of all kinds love them. I just wasn't prepared to have the immature seeds contain such a tempting amount of starch that the sheep would preferentially graze nearly every single head before moving on to the nutritionally-superior leafy forage in the same pasture. What a great eye-opener this was for us in terms of forage management! And one more reason to love intermediate wheatgrass.


Grass-finished Disclaimer (because I'm sure someone will ask!)

Some might want to argue that sheep indulging in the maturing seeds of a grass known for its ability to produce grain pushes the limits of grassfed/grass-finished (IWG has been under development as a potential perennial grain crop called Kernza by the Land Institute for many years; see here for more info: https://landinstitute.org/our-work/perennial-crops/kernza/ ). However, since IWG itself is not a grain crop, is not being harvested for grain, and consumption of the still-attached seeds is incidental to the existence of IWG in our pastures, I find no reason to deny the sheep this gastronomic delight. See the American Grassfed Association standards, 3.2.9 and 3.2.11, for further clarification in this area (https://www.americangrassfed.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Ruminant-Standards-AGA-Grassfed-V1-2017.pdf)





In conclusion: within a well-managed grazing ecosystem, every grass has its time and place. With skilled management and careful observation, along with deep familiarity of one's own pastures, learning to utilize grasses for peak animal performance while maintaining resilience and diversity in the plant (and soil!) community is the heart and soul of good grassfed livestock production. We are thankful we have intermediate wheatgrass to call on throughout the grazing year to fill a variety of needs and niches!


~Amanda






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