Wildfires are destroying millions of acres every year according to the National Centers for Environment Information. Many of these fires are human caused, but fuel like cheat grass causes fires to burn faster and hotter. Researchers in Utah are working to implement fire resistant plants into western landscapes to reduce the damage.
Forage kochia is a plant similar rabbit brush. The difference is that it contains high amounts of protein, it’s easily digested by livestock and wild animals and it has fire retardant abilities. A taller perennial variety called Snow Storm was developed by Blair Waldron, a plant and weed researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s a valuable opportunity to protect ourselves,” Waldron said. “There’s some bad fires that happen and I always thing I wish they would have had some forage kochia there. There was no really need to have that kind of damage.”
Waldron has been studying the plant for 20 years, but he said a ten acre plot of forage kochia was put to the test in 2007 in a Millard County fire that burned 160,000 acres.
“I drove down there afterwards and took pictures and it looked just like moonscape,” Waldron said. “But this little ten-acre evaluation of forage kochia had stopped the fire right there and saved about 1,000 acres behind it and that 1,000 acres became an oasis and a seed source for native plants.”
Another application of forage kochia Waldron is working on is fall and winter feed for cattle. After conducting research on a ranch in Box Elder County, Waldron found that cattle were able to graze longer instead of having to feed hay. That saved 25 percent more per day per cow.
“One time we did an economic analysis that if we could graze for 100 extra days it was a 10 percent savings on the annual cost for livestock production,” Waldron said.
Forage kochia is native to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan so people are worried about introducing a non-native species to the area.
“When we started working on it, we went and looked at all the plantings we could find in the west,” Waldron said. “They aged from 1 year old to 25 years old. We wanted to see what had happened since they had been planted and if you go on any one year you’ll see that forage kochia has started to move a little bit, but if you’ll go for a 25 year period, usually there’s very little movement of forage kochia.”
Waldron said forage kochia is an aggressive plant and will compete against annual grasses, but can be used as green strips to slow fires down. In cases of burned and disturbed areas it is a better option than letting cheat grass move in. He said areas should be researched before seeding forage kochia.