Researchers at the University of Wyoming will begin studying whether or not a drought-resistant plant unfazed by poor soils is an answer to reclaiming sites disturbed by oil and gas extraction.
Forage kochia  is a semi-evergreen, perennial shrub that can compete with cheatgrass, halogeton and other annual weeds.
Forage kochia is well-adapted to arid areas, provides good nutrition in the fall and winter, and can be used in greenstrips to stop wildfire, said Anowar Islam, University of Wyoming Extension forage agroecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.
Islam, in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and master’s student Matt Jolivet were to plant seeds early this month at a plot west of Laramie.
The plant could benefit agriculture and energy companies.
“We want to look at it as both a forage and a tool for reclamation in the oil and gas industry,” said Jolivet.
The plant could hold its own against weeds like cheatgrass, halogeton and Russian thistle, which are often first to invade disturbed sites.
“Reclamationists have tried to reclaim topsoil year after year with little success,” said Islam. “This might be an important species to grow on disturbed soil.”
The plant is not to be confused with the annual kochia weed, they cautioned. The forage species is native to the arid areas of Kazakhstan and Central Asia. “It’s a pasture plant like our sagebrush and has been called the alfalfa of the desert,” said Jolivet.
Only one variety had been available in the United States until last month. Immigrant was released in 1984 by Blair Waldron with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s Forage and Range Research Laboratory in Logan, Utah. He released a new variety, Snowstorm, March 22.
Snowstorm is superior to Immigrant, said Islam. It is taller and will catch and retain more snow, has better forage production and larger seeds.
“There is significance in the name,” said Islam. “It is named for its ability to extend the grazing season into the fall and winter.”
Islam said seeds are viable for only a year. Seed is broadcast on top of the snow or ground, and seeding is recommended December through February at 1 to 3 pounds per acre as a mix with grass or 3 to 6 pounds per acre as a monoculture. The plant is slow to mature, providing forage in the late fall and early winter.
Jolivet said forage kochia establishes best in already disturbed soil.
Islam said there is some concern forage kochia may invade and suppress native plant communities. Recent reports have shown that forage kochia competes well with annuals but does not invade perennial plant populations, he said.
Conversely, he noted, research has shown that forage kochia is often the only alternative to cheatgrass and halogeton on severely degraded rangelands.
“Planted forage kochia can easily be killed by Roundup,” Islam added. “Further evaluation of forage kochia will determine its widespread utilization or recommendation.”