Mention kochia and most folks immediately think of a weed. But forage kochia, a distant relative of the annual weed, is a high-quality fall and winter forage for livestock and wildlife.
“They are two different species,” clarifies USDA-ARS researcher Blair Waldron, who has studied forage kochia around the world.
Waldron says forage kochia is a perennial shrub-like plant that grows back from a woody base every year. Annual kochia sprouts from seeds and dries up to become a tumbleweed in fall.
Waldron also stresses that forage kochia has no tendency to cross with the annual kochia and shows very little weed-like aggressiveness. In fact, he often calls forage kochia a “miracle plant” because of its many attributes.
Native to central Eurasia, forage kochia is well-adapted to marginal rangeland areas. It competes with noxious weeds and cheatgrass, and is readily utilized by livestock and wildlife, he says.
Best of all, forage kochia is about 14% protein through fall and early winter and still tests about 7% in mid-February. Waldron says Utah State University research has shown that having forage kochia in a grazing animal's diet speeds digestion and is an economical alternative to alfalfa. In one study, it cost 24-48¢/head/day to feed forage kochia compared to about $1/head/day for alfalfa.
Waldron says forage kochia does well in semi-arid areas with 6-12” of annual precipitation and even grows well in alkaline or saline soils. It's becoming more common in Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming and eastern Colorado.
Christopher Schauer at North Dakota State University's Hettinger Research and Extension Center started forage kochia research trials last year. For the Northern Great Plains, “forage kochia offers great potential as a high-protein forage to extend the grazing season,” he says.
Schauer, a livestock nutritionist and rangeland science researcher, says forage kochia establishment appears to be the biggest challenge. He suggests that it will perform best mixed with crested wheatgrass or introduced forages for fall grazing.
Establishment can be tricky, Waldron agrees, but usually is successful if done properly. He recommends broadcasting a mix of forage kochia and rangeland grasses onto disturbed ground.
“Burying the seed with a drill will result in a total failure,” Waldron points out.
“It is a heavy seed producer and will fill in open areas, but generally does not compete with established perennials,” he adds.
Currently, only one variety — Immigrant — is available. According to Waldron, it's a short variety that can get covered with snow and be difficult to winter graze. He's working to develop taller varieties.
For more information, contact Waldron at the USDA-ARS Forage and Range Research Lab in Logan, UT, at 435-797-3073 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like forage kochia, annual kochia is high in protein, says North Dakota State University's Christopher Schauer. It's not uncommon for producers to put up annual kochia as ground hay to use as a filler in rations, especially during drought years when other forages are in short supply, he says.
However, Schauer cautions that annual kochia contains oxylates that can make it toxic. So the researcher recommends feeding it at no more than 50% of the ration.
Forage kochia, on the other hand, is not known to be toxic and is safe for grazing and haying, says USDA-ARS researcher Blair Waldron.