Blair Waldron loved the benefits of forage kochia. But every large snowstorm brought problems for him and the ranchers who grazed Immigrant, the only forage kochia variety for sale in the U.S.

The relatively short semi-shrub would disappear beneath the snow, unreachable by livestock. Waldron, plant geneticist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Utah, even had to cancel experiments on the forage following heavy snows.

But last year he debuted a new forage kochia variety, called Snowstorm. It has many traits of Immigrant, released in 1984 to rangelands in the West, but originates from a robust variety found in Uzbekistan, in central Asia.

Not only is Snowstorm nearly twice as tall as Immigrant, allowing it to poke through all but the largest snowfalls, it also yields more. The variety has a higher protein content and is more digestible, too, Waldron says.

“This was developed with the goal of improving (kochia’s) ability to serve as a fall or winter forage,” he adds. It’s what he envisioned 15 years ago, when he first started his research.

Forage kochia is popular in the West, where it easily adapts to the harsh, arid conditions. The plant, a native of central Eurasia, is used to stabilize land by out-competing invasive cheatgrass and eventually replacing the weed. Kochia also does not burn, so can serve as a wildfire retardant.

It can save producers money. Fall pastures with a mixture of forage kochia and crested wheatgrass yield up to six times more forage (2,300 lbs/acre) than plots with only crested wheatgrass (400 lbs/acre). That’s due in large part to kochia’s drought tolerance, according to four years of research by Waldron and Dale ZoBell, Utah State University beef Extension specialist. Ranchers also spent about 25% less on the mixture than they did on alfalfa hay from November to January, the researchers found, and body condition scores were similar.

Cattle also seem to love the taste.

“I was bringing a bull back, and when we came to a (kochia) field, he just stopped and started to eat,” says Rich Wilburn, a Crane, OR, rancher who tested Snowstorm for Waldron and uses Immigrant. “Shoot, we had to get a crowbar to get him out of the field and home.”

Snowstorm grows to about 30” tall compared to Immigrant’s 18” average height, according to Waldron’s research. Those extra inches added to the total yield, which was about 2,250 lbs/acre compared to Immigrant’s 1,350-lb/acre yield.

The new variety tested at nearly 8% protein vs. 6.5% for Immigrant. Snowstorm also was more digestible. Waldron attributes that to abundant, large leaves and its thick stem, which he believes has less lignin than Immigrant.

The geneticist made a limited amount of seed available to growers last year, hoping they could cultivate a large supply. But for reasons he is still unsure of, it was a terrible year for seed production, and supply was short. He and livestock producers hope enough seed will be available by the 2014 growing season.

“We’re interested in seeing what Snowstorm is,” says Bob Adams, who runs about 950 beef cows outside of Brigham City, UT. Adams (pictured above, at left, with Waldron) has used Immigrant for years and planted two 30-acre plots of Snowstorm for Waldron last year. “We’re kind of right in the infancy of our exposure to the stuff.”

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