Disappearing Winter Fat has researchers worried

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


Once a staple of fall and winter open range grazing in North America, Winter Fat (Krascheninnikovia lanata) has now become more and more difficult to find in Saskatchewan and Alberta pastures as continuous grazing has taken a heavy toll on once widespread stands of this perennial shrub. Dr. Mike Schellenberg of the Swift Current Research and Development Centre has studied the diminishing range of Winter Fat for years in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan. He says the first step toward bringing the plant back to abundance is for producers to understand how valuable it is to have and to protect in their own pastures.

“Where this plant really shines is in that fall period,” says Schellenberg. “That’s where the nutritional quality really shines for this plant. A steer usually requires about six per cent protein to get through the winter period for a maintenance diet. This plant will actually retain its protein value in that sort of 18 per cent range when we have measured it in December and January.”

On top of this, says Schellenberg, it is the plant, when fed with other poorly digestible plants, acts as a catalyst for cattle to access a much higher level of protein in their body system and encourages higher lactation rates.

“It is actually a plant that is found from Mexico all the way up to the Yukon,” says Schellenberg. “It’s called ‘Winter Fat’ because, as the name implies, cattle actually get fat on this particular shrub. This is a plant that has evolved more as something that would be grazed in that fall or winter period. Or for light grazing. So when you go to a continuous grazing; as a result they will keeping go back to these plants as they put forward shoots and eventually the plant just dies because they can’t produce anything above ground for photosynthesis.”

Schellenberg is one of the lead researchers in a team of scientists and industry partners trying to find ways to bring Winter Fat back to prairie pasturelands, but it is a task with many challenges.

“The plant itself has some unique challenges to it in re-seeding. The seed itself is actually is more like a cotton ball. If you take that hairy brack off there is actually a little plant inside. So if you were to add water it basically unfolds. The issue you run into is the seed itself if its stored at room temperature is only good for a year. Viability is very short unless you have the ability to drop the temperature down to about -20 degrees for storage.”

The plant also does not compete well with other perennials until it is firmly established.

“Because you have a hairy seed it typically doesn’t go through a standard seeder. So basically broadcasting is about the best way to seed it. It is wind distributed. Those little hairs on the outside will actually anchor it in the soil. It takes off from the surface typically, and does not tolerate deep burial. It works best where you have openings in your stands. Ideally what you would do is sort of roughen up things so you create some openings for these seedlings to sort of land in so they won’t have to complete directly to start with,” explains Schellenberg.

The good news, from Schellenberg’s perspective, is there seems to be a will amongst those who own pastureland in Alberta and Saskatchewan to bring this historically important fall/ winter grazing plant back onto their lands. He is already fielding several requests for seed in a trial the Swift Current Research and Development Centre is holding in 2016. There are also other alternatives to obtain seed out there, but Schellenberg says grazers should do their homework thoroughly before taking advantage of them.

“We are planning to do a more widespread release of Winter Fat seedlings in the next year,” confirms Schellenberg. “We will go out to commercial producers to take and start growing the material. Right now there are native plant producers that will produce small amounts. The best place to go would be the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, and then there are producers in the States where you can buy the seed. The caution with going to the States is that a lot of their material is from New Mexico, which is not typically adapted to our region. There have been releases lately from Montana, which we are testing to see if they are adapted to our climate. They may or may not be.”

Winter Fat from further north is also subsequently more “hairy” than varieties which have historically grown in Alberta and Saskatchewan and may not do well during the summer months.

In the end, the best way to access Winter Fat on pastureland is if you’ve already got it don’t lose it, says Schellenberg. Cattle have an insatiable appetite for the plant and if allowed access through continuous grazing will eat it “down to nub.”

“If you know you have an area that has a large component of this, and you want to retain those plants, you would hopefully fence it off or basically restrict the access for cattle to that area. The other thing we have learned is if you graze it, the subsequent year it will produce vegetatively more to some extent—as long as it’s not overgrazed; there is a fine line there.”

Schellenberg says those with pastureland have to make choices that best suit their operations, but feels for those who go that extra mile to protect vulnerable Winter Fat stands there is a huge economic upside.

“There are choices to be made, and you have to weigh the options out. One of the things I was told by a producer was that this is a plant that apparently, in cattle drives from Texas up into the Canadian prairies, they likely followed the Winter Fat. So this is a plant which has a huge historic significance as well. This plant that has the ability to take and provide you with some economic impact for those who want to graze in winter because this provides an excellent forage source during those lean winter months. And if it is managed right, it will serve you well for decades to come.”