South Dakota Grassland Coalition

by Sandy Smart

July 2021

Eastern red cedar

(Juniperus virginiana L.)

A native tree to the eastern half of the US. It has been slowly spreading into the Great Plains over the last 100 years. Historically, fire and grazing have kept this tree from overtaking our grasslands. If you think back to what life was like on the Great Plains several hundred years ago, there would have been periodic fire and a diverse group of ungulates grazing the prairie landscape. Some of these ungulates, like pronghorn antelope, would have consumed woody vegetation as part of their diet.

It makes sense that fire suppression and changes to the distribution of native ungulates, would be partially responsible for the increase in woody encroachment we are noticing today. However, I think the major culprit is likely the planting of cedar trees in shelter belts. Regardless, cedar tree encroachment is becoming a serious problem on some grasslands in South Dakota.

The Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association (MMRPBA) is doing its part to help producers use prescribed fire as one of the tools in the toolbox. In addition, mechanical control such as shearing can also be used. A group of folks from SDSU, MMRPBA, and the US Army Corp of Engineers got together to plan a research/demonstration project using goats to control cedar trees. So far the team has completed one field trial and one pen trial with more planned this summer and fall.

What we have learned so far is that goats will eat broadleaved trees and shrubs first (as in this photo). Then they will eat forbs and grass, and finally, they will eat the bark of the cedar tree trunk and branches (photo far right). Goats did the same thing in our pen study except they did consume more of the needles on branches of smaller trees. This is ongoing research and more data will be shared later. Goats are another tool in the toolbox that shows promise in controlling eastern red cedar tree encroachment in grasslands.

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