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I’ve Got This Weed Growing in My Pasture. What Does It Say About My Soil?

By   /  July 15, 2019  /  1 Comment

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Can weeds tell you about soil health issues? Well, yes and no.

This calf is eating musk thistle, just like she was trained to do.

I’ve got a lot of experience with weeds since I’ve spent the last 15 years teaching cattle, sheep, goats and bison to eat them under all kinds of soil conditions in and all kinds of landscapes. My observation is that spotted knapweed does well in all kinds of soils. So does Canada thistle. In fact, most of the weeds I’ve worked with grow in a wide variety of locations and soil types. So I’m a little doubtful that they can tell us much about the nutrients of the soil they’re growing in.

Mostly, weeds are indications of past management, as the chart below indicates. (Thanks to Greg Brann for sharing this.) Areas that have been over grazed have more weeds due to soil compaction and lack of competition. Some plants grow well in low fertility soils – like pastures and hay fields that haven’t been fertilized or limed in some time. Some of the examples you’ll find under these conditions are shown in the chart below. (Just click on the chart to download a larger, more readable version.) In addition to showing us what we might see in compacted soils, overgrazed pastures, and areas with low fertility, it also shows you what grows in wet or flooded soils, and shows you what plants look like when they’re suffering from nutrient deficiencies.

What Should You Do When You Find Weeds?

If you have weeds that indicate compacted soils, you need more roots, both fibrous and tap roots. Start by maintaining living roots in your soil year-round by allowing plants to recover longer between grazing and mowing so that roots can recover as well. All plants help reduce issues with compaction but the following plants are especially known for decreasing soil compaction:

• Cool season annuals: forage radish and cereal rye
• Cool season perennials: alfalfa, chicory, red clover and sweet clover
• Warm season annuals: sorghums
• Warm season perennials: native warm season grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass and eastern gamagrass. Bermudagrass is tolerant of overgrazing and rather drought tolerant but doesn’t have as deep a root system as natives and needs nutrients for production.

If your pastures have been overgrazed, provide more rest. Lowering stocking rate will remove stress on the the grass, the soil, the livestock and you. Here are some other practices that can help:

• Fertilizing,
• Feeding over winter,
• Increasing the number of paddocks and rotating more often,
• Leaving minimum heights of grass for soil protection, improved infiltration, lower soil temperature and improved water management

How to Find Out About Your Soil

Click to read more about using the Web Soil Survey to learn about the soils under your farm/ranch.

If you really want to know what’s going on underground, I’d suggest a couple of resources. First, you can find out about your soils using the Web Soil Survey from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Not only can it tell you what type of soil you have, but it will also note potential deficiencies and estimate the amount of forage you can grow. Here’s an On Pasture article that includes instructions for using it.

Gather soil samples and send them off for analysis! There’s no better way to find out what’s going on underground. For instructions on how to collect soil samples and send them, check our article, “The Thrill of Soil Sampling!” If you’re not sure where to send your soil sample, check in with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service Office, your local Conservation District, or an extension professional in your state.

One more thing…

Right now, we’re working on the next three years of funding for On Pasture. If On Pasture is helpful to you, then we could use your help to keep On Pasture online. Here’s what you can do:

1. Become an ongoing supporter. This shows grantors and sponsors that readers are committed to On Pasture.

2. Send Kathy an email about how On Pasture has helped you as a farmer, rancher, NRCS staffer or agriculture professional. If you use NRCS technical and financial assistance, we’d like to hear from you too!

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. Gene Schriefer says:

    The midwest cover crop council has a cover crop selection tool –
    http://mccc.msu.edu/selector-tool/ and you can pick criteria for a cover crop including soil compaction and forage, there are several very good options available for Midwest growers.

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