Grazing for Weed Control - Vanishing Whitetop
Now you see it, now you don’t. That’s the story with the invasive and difficult-to-treat weed known as whitetop on Jake Yoder’s pastures. With NRCS assistance, Jake Yoder implemented a High Stock Density grazing system this spring on his pastures. Historically, Jake has hayed or grazed his pastures more conventionally. Under the conventional system, livestock shunned the weeds and never utilized them. As a result, numerous weed species have encroached and increased in prevalence within the pastures. One weed in particular, whitetop, has increased in scale considerably and has caused Jake considerable concern. After Jake implemented his new grazing system, the livestock utilized the whitetop heavily and eliminated nearly all seed development this year! The results are jaw-dropping, to say the least.
Andrea Burton, NRCS Soil Conservation Technician, examines a thriving patch of the invasive weed species, whitetop, in Jake Yoder's Lake County, Montana, pasture before grazing. May 20, 2013.
Jaime Gordon, NRCS student intern, stands in the same pasture two weeks later. Cows aggressively grazed the whitetop under Yoder's new High Stock Density grazing management system and didn’t ignore it as they had under a more conventional system. June 4, 2013.
Jake has begun dividing his larger pastures into two-acre paddocks using temporary electric fencing. He rotates his 60 cow/calf pairs through the paddocks every two days. Under the new system, the livestock no longer ignore the less-palatable species. Instead, the livestock have begun to utilize the weeds. One would expect livestock to utilize weeds if forage was limited. However, that is not the case here. An examination of the pasture shows fairly uniform utilization of all plant species, with no single species over-utilized. For example, there are numerous orchard grass and meadow brome plants with seed heads standing directly within the grazed whitetop patch! By increasing his stock density, Jake has increased the competitiveness of his livestock and decreased their grazing selectivity. The results thus far have been spectacular.
In early June, a group of local producers visited Jake’s pasture during one of Lake County’s bi-weekly Pasture Walks. The NRCS office in Ronan, Montana, has organized Pasture Walks in an effort to promote improved pasture management within the local agricultural community. Walks are held every other week in evenings throughout the growing season. Each Pasture Walk visits a different landowner’s property and walks the pasture(s) as a group. The Pasture Walks provide an opportunity for landowners to come together in a low-stress, idea-sharing environment in order to facilitate improving pasture management and associated forage yields, quality and other issues.
During the Pasture Walk held at Jake Yoder’s property, the group was astounded at the level of whitetop utilization. Nobody within the group had ever seen anything like it. Under a conventional grazing system, livestock would have completely ignored the whitetop, resulting in a heavily-grazed pasture dotted with patches of ungrazed whitetop. When the Pasture Walkers stood in the middle of the now-grazed whitetop patch and looked at pictures showing the same patch in it’s “before grazing” condition, most participants couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The local MSU Extension agent and other subsequent visitors to the site were just as amazed at the transformation. Successes like these continue to build confidence that improved management of tame pastures can pay significant dividends for producers, natural resources (including soil health) and communities.