An adaptable perennial shrub may be the answer to fighting a weed that is taking over rangelands in the Intermountain West.

Forage kochia, a protein-rich forage that allows for increased cattle stocking rates, out-competes cheatgrass, a pervasive weed that pushes out native species, according to USDA research. Cheatgrass lowers forage value for livestock, destabilizes the soil, diminishes wildlife habitat and increases the risk of wildfires.

“We’ve reached a point where a lot of times we can’t directly reseed natives into the environment. The soils have been changed,” by years of cheatgrass dominance, says Blair Waldron, plant geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Logan, UT.

But forage kochia, a native of the grazed grasslands of central Eurasia, can stabilize land by replacing cheatgrass and allowing producers to reintroduce native species. It has the ability to slow or stop wildfires and provides up to 7% crude protein, his research shows.

Pastures with a mixture of forage kochia and crested wheatgrass yield six times more forage than plots with only crested wheatgrass. That’s due in large part to kochia’s drought tolerance, according to Waldron and Dale ZoBell, Utah State University beef extension specialist. Rangeland with this mix of pasture can support 1.38 animals per acre, a big improvement over the 0.24-animal-per-acre stocking rate that traditional rangeland supports.

The forage kochia-wheatgrass blend can also save on feed costs in winter. Ranchers spent 25% less on the mixture than they did on alfalfa hay from November through January, the researchers found, yet their cattle produced similar body condition scores.

“We concluded these cows that were on forage kochia were near optimal for calving and rebreeding,” Waldron says.