“It has a lot of potential.”
– MICHAEL SCHELLENBERG, AAFC
They say the great cattle drives from the United States to Canada during the late 19th century used to follow the winterfat trail.
Winterfat, a low-lying shrub native to Great Northern Plains, was a prime source of nutrition for ranging cattle because of its high protein content. In fact, a straight diet of it could make an animal too fat for the winter, hence the name.
Now winterfat may be poised for a comeback, this time in pastures.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researchers have found that adding winterfat to grass-legume mixtures can increase forage production.
There’s long been evidence that seeding a mixture of grasses, whether domestic or native, can increase the production of forages. But including winterfat in the mix has certain advantages, scientists say.
For one thing, it retains a high protein content up to 18 per cent into late fall. This helps improve an animal’s ability to digest forage grazed late in the year.
Also, winterfat is highly drought resistant and helps control soil erosion when seeded in a mixture to increase plant density.
Still another feature is that winterfat is a late-season plant, which means it’s useful for fall grazing and overwintering cattle on range. Keeping animals on pasture instead of feedlots helps optimize the economics of livestock production, according to some animal scientists.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of winterfat is that it tastes good to cattle.
Winterfat is known as an “ice-cream plant” because it’s one of grazing animals’ favourite plants. They’ll return to it again and again, said Michael Schellenberg, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada research scientist in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
“I’ve watched animals go into a pasture that they’ve never been into. There are plants that have never been grazed in a remnant area. Those are the first plants they go to and graze them till there’s nothing left,” said Schellenberg, an ecologist at AAFC’s Semi-Arid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre.
Although winterfat recovers well and can even increase productivity the following year, it needs to be grazed at the optimum time: early spring and late fall. Therefore, it doesn’t do well in continuous grazing systems, said Schellenberg.
AAFC is experimenting to include winterfat with different grass-legume mixtures. Purple prairie clover is best because it’s not as aggressive as alfalfa, giving winterfat a chance to fit in, Schellenberg said.
Winterfat used to be a commonly occurring plant in western North America. Different ecotypes are still found from Mexico all the way north to the Yukon.
But a lot was lost to continuous grazing and the breaking of cropland, where much of it was located, said Schellenberg.
AAFC has forwarded winterfat seeds to Ducks Unlimited for multiplication under a DU ecovar program for native plant species. Some programs in the United States are currently working with winterfat germplasm.
But there are no registered winterfat varieties and won’t be until a breeder comes forward to develop the plant as a commercial cultivar, Schellenberg said.
Despite its long history, winterfat never took off as a crop in its own right. Schellenberg has printed material going back to 1890 calling winterfat a forage that needs to be developed.
That may finally happen now with the increased risk of drought resulting from warming climatic conditions.
“It has a lot of potential. It has been overlooked in the past and we’re definitely looking at it now,” said Schellenberg.
For producers who want to try growing winterfat, Schellenberg advises them to set aside a small pasture and experiment with winter grazing. People who grow winterfat for seed do exist and listings are available on the Internet.
Although winterfat is viewed as a semi-arid plant, it can grow just about anywhere. Schellenberg said he gets calls from landowners in Manitoba’s Red River Valley after spring floods asking how to get rid of winterfat. The fluffy, cotton-ball-like seeds float up from North Dakota.
Schellenberg said it’s not hard to eliminate winterfat but usually it’s only something crop producers want to control.
“I’ve never gotten a call from a livestock producer who wants to get rid of it.”
AAFC is also experimenting with other shrubs for their potential to provide additional protein during the fall grazing season. They include leadplant, four-wing saltbush, Gardner’s saltbush and antelope bitterbrush. [email protected]