By Emily Lockard EBS Contributor

Cheatgrass has gained notoriety in the West, with concern about the invasive weed Japanese brome trailing behind. But the new invasive weed in the area is ventenata, or Ventenata dubia, a grass that hails from southern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.

While its spread is not as vast in Montana yet, ventenata has found its way to parts of Gallatin County. In other states it’s been known to outcompete cheatgrass and take over – a solution for our cheatgrass problem? Not necessarily.

Cheatgrass and Japanese brome, both native to Eurasia, and ventenata are all winter annual grasses. Like winter wheat, they germinate in the fall and start growing when the snow melts. Where desirable grasses don’t take hold, invasive species like cheatgrass, Japanese brome and ventenata can take advantage of the lack of competition.

These grasses take up soil moisture and nutrients all plants compete for, but since they start growing earlier in the spring, they can take over before other grasses have a chance to compete. Cheatgrass and Japanese brome have their own unique role in a changing fire regime, and cheatgrass is a perpetual problem in winter cropping systems, especially those that don’t have rotations to counter the cheatgrass growth cycle.

Ventenata is coming into play in the West because like other invasive species, it takes advantage of disturbed, bare ground and plant communities that are struggling to compete from overgrazing or drought. Other states experiencing an influx of ventenata have found it can be even more invasive than cheatgrass.

While cheatgrass is palatable to grazing livestock in the early spring and fall before plants turn purplish brown, it doesn’t appear that ventenata is very palatable. High levels of silica prevent it from being a desirable grass for grazing animals, but while there is some evidence it may be palatable early in spring, more research is needed.

Proper identification is key if you suspect any of these grasses are on your property. Early spring identification can be difficult with any grass, but especially ventenata, so summer identification is easier and possibly more accurate.

Ventenata is typically 6-27 inches tall and with a tawny to light yellow color. Key characteristics include reddish-black nodes in May and June, and upper awns that are twisted and bent in July and August. Often it looks similar to cheatgrass.

If you identify undesirable winter annual grasses, flag them off or mark the area with GPS points so it’s easy to identify their location in early spring. Other ventenata control options are limited due to a lack of research in this newly spreading grass. Other states have found that Imazapic applied in the fall to semi-dormant perennial grass stands has been effective, followed by an application of nitrogen fertilizer that can help perennial grasses recover from herbicide damage and be more competitive.

To prevent ventanata’s arrival, maintain healthy grasslands and reduce introduction by ensuring you don’t bring contaminated hay to your place.

For more resources read the MontGuide “Cheatgrass: Identification, Biology and Integrate Management” and Weed Post “Ventenata” from August 2013, or call Emily Lockard at the MSU Extension – Gallatin County office (406) 388-3213.